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Interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

By The Situation Room - August 15, 2011

BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're in Decorah, Iowa, where we're waiting for the president of the United States. He's due to hold a town hall meeting right behind me in the next hour. He just crossed the border into Iowa from Minnesota.

Let's talk about what's going on though in this state. If anyone knows politics here, it would be the former governor, the current agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack. He's joining me live here in Decorah.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us. I don't know if I like calling you Mr. Secretary or Governor.

What do you prefer?

TOM VILSACK, AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: It doesn't make any difference.

BLITZER: All right. You spent eight years as governor of Iowa, so you know this state.

VILSACK: I did.

BLITZER: Let me pick your brain a little bit politically and do a little analysis of what the Republicans are up to. Were you surprised in this straw poll that Michele Bachmann came out on top?

VILSACK: Not really. Michele Bachmann has got an Iowa connection, and she does a very good job of building up support.

But, you know, frankly, that straw poll has passed. And I think really what folks are really focusing on are the jobs.

I think you mentioned in your lead-in it is about the jobs. And the president is coming here today to talk about jobs in rural America. And I really appreciate the fact that he's putting the spotlight on a part of country that often gets ignored when we talk about the economy.

Sixteen percent of America's population, but 44 percent of America's military, Wolf. This is the heart and soul of America. And it's important for us to put the focus on jobs in rural America.

BLITZER: How is unemployment here in rural America?

VILSACK: Well, the Iowa unemployment is good. It's about 6 percent. But historically, rural America has had an higher unemployment rate, also higher poverty rates.

That's why it's important and necessary for the president's efforts, which are historic in terms of the investments in rural America, to continue. We're going to have a series of announcements over the course of the next couple of days as part of this forum and as part of this tour to focus on getting more small business development in rural America and get more jobs.

BLITZER: You've spent some quality time with the president over the past couple of days. So how is he doing? When he looks at these poll numbers, 39 percent job approval, 40 percent job approval, that's pretty low given where he was not that long ago.

VILSACK: You know, the president's focus really, Wolf, is not on poll numbers or on the next election. It's on getting jobs today.

He had a great event earlier in Minnesota. I think he's going to have a wonderful event here.

He's looking forward to the forum. He's going to be able to listen tomorrow to a number of key rural leaders about their concerns, steps that we have to take beyond the 10,000 small businesses that have been helped in this administration, beyond the broadband expansion that's taken place, beyond the renewable energy projects which are part of the fabric of America. You're going to see a lot more of that.

BLITZER: He carried your state, Iowa, decisively in 2008, but right now he could be in trouble in this state, carrying it -- if he doesn't carry Iowa, Minnesota, states like that, Ohio, for that matter, he could be in trouble.

VILSACK: I can't speak for the president on this, Wolf, but can I tell you that I'm confident that his people understand and appreciate the contribution and the investment that we've made in rural America. Thirty-five thousand farmers, with assistance from my department, over 400,000 people who got home loans through the USDA, when we start talking about those numbers of people who have been helped, I think it's going to make a big difference.

BLITZER: So, so far, at least in the first town hall that we heard today, he repeated some of his initiatives. Some of them modest, some of them not so modest, that he said before.

I didn't hear a new bold initiative to create jobs. Is there something -- you're a member of the cabinet -- that's in the works we can expect to hear from the president fairly soon?

VILSACK: Over the course of the next several days you're going to hear a number of proposals that the president is going to lay out that will increase job opportunities and send a clear message that there is a focus on rural America. This is obviously the place where most of our food and most of our feed is produced, but it's also going to be a place where a good deal of our fuel is produced. And you're going to hear more about that.

How can we build a biofuel industry that weans ourselves off of dependence on foreign oil? You're going to hear a lot about that.

BLITZER: But is it going to require a whole lot of spending? Because you know the Republicans in the House of Representatives, they've got a big majority there. They're not going to vote for a whole lot of new spending.

VILSACK: This isn't about new spending. We have to spend less, but we have to invest wisely. And I think you're going to find that the initiatives we're talking about are not necessarily about new spending, but by directing that spending and focusing it and leveraging it with additional resources.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is this an initiative he can do through an executive order, just signing it, or will he need congressional approval?

VILSACK: He started the initiative by an executive order that created the Rural Council. It's a cabinet level council, first in the history of our country, and he's challenged his cabinet members to work together.

How can you cooperate, integrate and coordinate your programs more effectively to provide service? I think you're going to see a lot of examples of that in the next couple of days and throughout the course of the next several weeks.

BLITZER: Who would be the strongest opponent, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?

VILSACK: I'll let the Republicans decide that.

BLITZER: Diplomatic answer from the former governor of Iowa.

You've got a beautiful state. We love coming here to Iowa every four years. You come here a lot more often than that.

VILSACK: We're proud of it.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much, Governor. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much.

VILSACK: Thanks, Wolf. 

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