Last year was a particularly busy one for Vilsack: Congress was dragging its feet on the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pass a farm bill, the country was suffering one of the largest droughts in decades, and his wife, Christie, was trying to unseat conservative lightning rod Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
This on top of USDA's always crowded dance card (objectives include assuring food safety, promoting agricultural trade, protecting natural resources, and, oh yeah, ending hunger in the United States and abroad). Making things even busier is Vilsack's commitment to civil rights. He notes that when he first took over as Agriculture secretary, he was greeted by "tens of thousands of complaints and lawsuits" relating to discrimination.
Fortunately, Vilsack, 62, has a track record of multitasking. Having served as mayor of the Iowa town of Mount Pleasant and also as governor of the state, he has the executive-experience thing down pat.
"When my governor friends ask me if I'm having a good time, they expect me to complain," he says. "But it's the greatest job in America. It's like being the governor of 50 states at once."
Abandoned as a child, Vilsack was adopted from a Pittsburgh orphanage and attended Hamilton College in upstate New York and Albany Law School. After getting married, he moved to his wife's hometown of Mount Pleasant to work in his father-in-law's law office. After his stint as mayor, Vilsack won the governor's race in what The Cook Political Report called "the biggest upset" of 1998. He held the office from 1999 to 2007. He was appointed to the Agriculture Department in President Obama's first term.
On paper, last year may have been his most difficult: There is still no farm bill, the drought racked up huge losses, and King is still in Congress. But Vilsack has high hopes for 2013, mainly because without a national election, it could still be a good year for the farm bill. Vilsack said USDA serves three functions in trying to get a food, farm, and conservation bill passed: educating people around the country, creating the opportunity for farm groups to get their voices heard by lawmakers, and bringing key members of Congress together to see if they can bridge their differences. And while they couldn't last year, Vilsack said he believes the groundwork they laid will pay off in 2013.