WASHINGTON - Barack Obama's pick to head the Agriculture Department is expected to push the president-elect's pledge to trim wasteful farm subsidies, an elusive goal that has confounded President George W. Bush and scores of lawmakers.
Both Obama and Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack, his choice to oversee the country's food and farm programs, face long odds in getting such an agenda past powerful farm-state lawmakers in Congress.
Vilsack's first task will be to help the enormous department determine how to put the new $290 billion farm law in place. The five-year law, enacted by Congress over a Bush veto this year, includes plump subsidies for many crops.
Vilsack acknowledged challenges in finding ways to lead the department through tough times, saying "it must be innovative and creative in all its work during a time of economic anxiety and limited resources."
He should have better luck promoting renewable fuels such corn-based ethanol. As governor of the nation's largest corn-producing state for eight years, Vilsack was a leader on the issue and made it a central part of his short-lived campaign for president. He also has endorsed tax breaks for the ethanol industry.
Farm groups praised his nomination. The National Corn Growers Association's president, Bob Dickey, said Vilsack understands the corn industry and was a "wise choice."
Others were not as pleased. Food and environmental groups have taken on the powerful ethanol industry in the past year, arguing that government subsidies have led to increased damage of lands used to plant corn and contributed to a run-up in food prices.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said he is worried that Vilsack will not listen to all sides of the issue.
The former governor has shown a willingness to compromise on the issue. He was co-chairman of Council on Foreign Relations task force this year that recommended phasing out some ethanol subsidies.
Vilsack also will oversee nutrition programs, which make up the bulk of the department's budget, and conservation programs designed to protect farmland. That idea is popular in Iowa, which is also home to the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Harkin said Vilsack has the potential to help transform agriculture by shifting money from subsidies for large corporate farms and toward conservation and other programs to help the land. "He's got the background, the intelligence, the political skills that will be necessary to really change agriculture and move it into the future," Harkin said.
Those who favor lowering subsidies were encouraged last month when Obama reacted to a congressional report that found many wealthy individuals who exceed income caps were still receiving farm subsidies. He called it a prime example of government waste.
Obama also has called for lowering the cap on farm payments — a popular position in the Midwest, where crops are less expensive to grow. Southern lawmakers have long blocked lowering those limits, however, as Southern rice and cotton crops require more investment.
Cook said Obama and Vilsack may be able to find small ways to trim subsidies as the new administration writes rules to put in place the new farm law.
"We'll certainly be making the case that this is a test of President-elect Obama's position," Cook said.
Vilsack did not focus heavily on agricultural issues as governor. But he headed gubernatorial groups that focused on biotechnology, ethanol and Midwestern issues, and he eventually headed the Democratic Governors Association.
Since his presidential bid, Vilsack has worked at several jobs, including one at Iowa State University's Biosafety Institute. In that position, he has a role analyzing the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products.
Vilsack, who turned 58 on Saturday, was rumored last month to be Obama's top choice for the post, but he quashed the rumors by telling aides he would not be agriculture secretary.
Current Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, whose term as governor of North Dakota overlapped with Vilsack's in Iowa, said in a statement Wednesday that he is confident that Vilsack will "continue the progress we have made here."