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Obama presidency: what to expect

Don’t expect any major policy pronouncements right away — the president-elect may have to focus on a little thing like fixing the economy first.

Don’t expect any major policy pronouncements right away — the president-elect may have to focus on a little thing like fixing the economy first. (A call to the Obama transition office about possible secretaries of agriculture brought a polite “We’ll have to get back to you” response.)

For now, farm organization leaders and ag writers are left having to review the Obama campaign’s previous statements on agricultural issues to such groups as the National Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers’ Union to get a sense of what he might do.

During the campaign, Obama spokesmen seemed to go out of their way to emphasize their candidate’s support for renewable fuels, due, in part, to the Illinois senator’s relationship with the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

Obama is also expected to be less of a free-trade enthusiast than the current president. One farm organization CEO alluded to that in assessing the odds for restarting the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy was expected to come to Washington in mid-November to try to enlist U.S. help in getting the Doha talks under way again.

“If he meets with the Obama transition team, he (Lamy) is likely to have heart failure,” the CEO said. “The Obama people have indicated they want to look at every detail of the Doha agreement before they agree to restart anything.”

In comments to the Corn Growers prior to the election, Obama said he understands trade is vital to the agricultural sector, noting that 50 percent of the wheat, 20 percent of the corn and 35 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are exported.

Obama indicated he would support full funding of market promotion programs — something which Republican presidential nominee John McCain had said he would not do.

Obama also pledged to “break down trade and investment barriers that restrict our access to markets” and continue to support bipartisan efforts to lift bans on U.S. beef.

“It’s also important that we ensure that our trade agreements create a level playing field for American businesses and workers, and that our farmers and businesses secure robust market access as a result of these agreements. Trade agreements must contain strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards so that American farmers are able to compete on a level playing field.”

Since the last Doha Round language tabled in Geneva before the WTO negotiations collapsed there in July would have exempted more of India and China’s markets from increased access, it might be assumed an Obama administration would have problems with it.

Obama has said he would support efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oils by promoting the development of a number of renewable energy sources such as biofuels, solar and wind energy. “We are already replacing millions of barrels of imported oil thanks to our successful biofuels program,” he said.

“I recently established a goal to have 60 billion gallons of our fuel come from biofuels by 2022,” he noted, promising to invest $150 billion in a green energy sector over the next 10 years. The latter, he said, would create up to 5 million new jobs that cannot be outsourced.

McCain, in contrast, had voted against renewable fuel mandates several times and had indicated he would continue to oppose the use of such legislation, preferring to allow the markets to dictate America’s sources of energy supplies.

Some farm group leaders said they believe President-elect Obama will be more supportive of agriculture than his opponent in a number of arenas.

“We have appreciated Sen. Obama’s leadership on issues ranging from strong safety net programs within the farm bill to the promotion of corn-based ethanol as an important source of domestic energy,” said National Corn Grower President Bob Dickey.

Dickey, a farmer from Nebraska, said the NCGA has already developed a positive working relationship with Obama’s campaign staff and advisers as they reached out to the agricultural community on policy issues.

“We have a number of challenges facing us,” added Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union. “We are going to have a president who does want to work with rural America and address these issues.”

One concern for some farm organizations — and for farm-state congressmen — is Obama’s earlier endorsement of stricter payment limits.

“The president-elect has said he thinks payments should be capped at $250,000 per person,” said West Higginbotham, agricultural aide to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who spoke at the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council’s mid-year board of directors meeting.

“We also have a new Republican senator — Mike Johanns of Nebraska — who wrote the current administration’s language changing the payment limit eligibility rules while he was secretary of agriculture. This is an area that we will continue to watch very closely in the months ahead.”

When he outlined his position on agriculture for the Corn Growers, Obama said he supports a safety net that “targets assistance appropriately and provides farmers with risk mitigation tools that protect them from weather and market conditions that are beyond their control.

“This includes traditional farm programs, crop insurance and disaster assistance. I supported the 2008 farm bill and both the bill’s permanent disaster program and ad hoc disaster assistance when farmers in Illinois and around the country needed it,” he said.