Iowa Public Television


Bush Looks Back at His Rural Legacy

posted on January 16, 2009

This week marks the culmination of George W. Bush's eight years in the White House. Bush endured economic challenges the likes of which no president has faced since the days of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

They include two recessions -- the first, an eight-month downturn which began in March of 2001. The second recession began more than a year ago and has proven to be much more severe.

More than 2 million jobs have been lost and investors have seen trillions of dollars in savings evaporate. The Dow Jones industrial average fell by 33.8 percent in 2008, in its biggest decline since 1931.

While history likely will not look fondly on the President's handling of the economic crisis, Bush's legacy in rural America may be more upbeat. Andrew Batt explains.

When President Bush addressed the nation for the final time this week, the two-term commander-in-chief's face seemed etched with years of experience.

Nearly a decade ago, a much younger-looking Governor Bush hit the national campaign trail for the first time as a presidential candidate.

George W. Bush (Dec. 1 1999): "I've been a uniter, not a divider in my State of Texas."

Campaigning during the 2000 Iowa Caucuses, Bush emphasized free trade as a backbone policy for rural America.

George W. Bush (Dec. 1 1999): "It is to the farmer's best interests that we open up markets all around the world. I don't believe the freedom to farm act has been given proper time to work."

George W. Bush (Dec. 14, 1999): "The amount of corn that would be exported to China if they get into the WTO would double. That is good for Iowa farmers."

Gary Bauer, Presidential Candidate: "No. No. You're wrong. You assume China will keep their agreements."

George W. Bush (Dec. 14, 1999): "They will because that is part of agreement keeping."

While trade invoked a strong response from Bush, the role of ethanol would prove to be a signature promise from the Texas Governor.

George W. Bush: "I support ethanol, I completely support ethanol because its good for the quality of the air…its good for the air."

But only months after winning the 2000 election over Al Gore, many of the President's domestic proposals dimmed in light of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drew much of the nation's attention during Bush's first term. But agriculture and rural America faced their own challenges.

President Bush's first Ag Secretary, Ann Veneman, supervised the 2002 farm bill.

Foreign trade expansion remained a central goal for Bush – an issue he took directly to the Heartland -even speaking at the 2002 Pork Expo.

President Bush: "We need to open markets to your farm goods. I often tell other countries you open to us then we will open our products to you."

Bush's crown jewel of free trade would come four years later in his 2nd term with the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. CAFTA passed by a razor-thin one vote margin in a late night Congressional session.

Late in 2003, America's first case of mad cow disease rocked agricultural circles across the country. Ag Secretary Veneman and the Bush Administration scrambled to install food safety measures and calm an anxious public.

Trade restrictions on U.S. beef would take years to recover from the positive BSE test and some international concerns remain to this day.

Bush would inevitably win re-election over Massachesutts Senator John Kerry in November 2004 and set his sights on a further overhaul of domestic policy. After Washington remained gridlocked over Social Security reform, Bush turned to immigration – hoping the guidance of a former border-state Governor could reform everything from guest farm worker programs to a new border fence initiative.

The immigration debate eventually devolved into a series of accusations labeling the Bush proposals as "amnesty" or "falling short" of true reform. The immigration bill failed in Congress and Bush would eventually instruct the Department of Homeland Security to build thousands of miles of new fenceline along the U.S.-Mexico border.

On farm policy, President Bush's 2nd term brought a new Agriculture Secretary in Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns.

Johanns, a former Iowa farm boy, criss-crossed the country in a series of Farm Bill listening sessions. Johanns unveiled new farm bill proposals in 2007 aimed at reigning in direct subsidy payments to American farmers.

Despite more than two years on 2007 farm bill preparations, Johanns left USDA to run for U.S. Senate in Nebraska before the bill even came to a Congressional vote.

Bush replaced Ag Secretary Johanns with former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer in the months preceding a farm bill vote. In spring 2008, many of the subsidy reforms lobbied by Bush were not part of the final farm bill. The President used his seldom utilized veto power on the 2008 farm bill and was overturned the following week by Congress.

While the farm bill wrangling on Capitol Hill may have given Bush a black eye, the President's endorsement of biofuels earned him high praise in farm country.

President George W. Bush: "Our nation is addicted to oil."

Bush's proclamation of American oil addiction was followed by doubling down on domestic ethanol production.

President George W. Bush: "The bill I sign today takes a significant step because it will require fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel in 2022."

When President Bush signed the 2007 energy bill, ethanol expansion and investment seemed to be at an all-time high. But concern was already growing in some livestock sectors. Corn prices were about to make a record run to well over $7.

President George W. Bush: "…we understand the hog growers are getting nervous because the price of corn is up."

Bush's unfaltering defense of ethanol during the record food and fuel prices of 2008 all but endeared the President to perhaps his greatest legacy in farm country. While the Bush Administration made little headway on global trade talks with WTO and faltered on its vision of lower farm subsidies, the two-term Republican may long be remembered for defending a homegrown fuel from America's heartland.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture border fence corn ethanol George W. Bush Iowa legacy Mad Cow news presidents rural soybeans