President Obama has dispatched his cabinet secretaries on a "listening tour" of rural America, beginning July 1 in Wattsburg, Pennsylvania.
Vice President Joe Biden is joined by two cabinet secretaries in Wattsburg, Pennsylvania, Wednesday to talk about rural broadband service. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Federal Communications chairman Julius Genachowski and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack will join the VP at Senaca High School as part of an Obama administration “listening tour” of rural America, the President announced Tuesday.
President Obama announced the rural visits during a radio interview on WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. (You can hear from Obama directly if you go here and click on the appropriate button.) Obama said his administration wanted to “hear from people directly…We want to know what good ideas people have.” (See the full tour list below. To keep up with the tongue-twisting “rural tour,” go here.)
In a statement announcing the “tour,” Obama said, “A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America. Rural America is vast and diverse, and different communities face different challenges and opportunities. That’s why we’re going out to hear directly from the people of rural America about their needs and concerns and what my Administration can do to support them.”
(We at the Yonder wonder why elected officials feel like a visit to any community outside a city should be called a “tour”? Isn’t a tour for tourists? And for politicians, why is it now always a “listening tour”? Remember, Hillary Clinton had her “listenting tour” when she first considered running for the Senate in New York. And, more recently, the Department of Agriculture held its own “listening tour” about plans to implement an animal tagging system in the country.)
In Wattsburg, PA, today, Vice President Biden trumpeted that Recovery Act’s commitment of $7.2 billion for expanded broadband Internet access to unserved and underserved areas. The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service holds the purse strings on $2.5 billion “to facilitate broadband development in rural communities.” Some rural broadband activists had hoped that the funding would be distributed by other means, because in the past RUS has disbursed so much of federal money to areas close to cities. One report found that RUS had awarded 77% of its federal funds to areas where broadband was already available.
A New York Times reporter, Kate Phillips, points out that “many of the areas listed for visits by other Cabinet secretaries are situated in swing states — Zanesville, Ohio, for example, or parts of North Carolina — which turned out favorably for Mr. Obama in the 2008 election.”
Biden also announced that throughout July, the Dept. of Commerce and USDA would host public workshops to explain and facilitate the broadband funding process for potential applicants. These locations are mostly urban, and, except for Lonoke, Arkansas, nearly all are in places where Obama won by a wide margin: Boston, Mass.; Charleston, W.Va.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Lonoke, Ark.; Birmingham, Ala.; Billings, Mont.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Los Angeles, Calif.
The rural listening tour may be part of a larger strategy by the Administration to change the terms of the debate over pending health care legislation by moving the discussion outside Washington, D.C. The Times reported yesterday that Obama was “trying to enlist the nation’s governors and his own army of grass-roots supporters in a bid to increase pressure on lawmakers without getting himself mired in the messy battle playing out on Capitol Hill.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported that the “potentially risky” strategy was to “shift the health care debate away from Washington and to the states.”
In his Yankton radio interview, Obama said that the climate change legislation passed by the House last week had $5 billion in benefits for farmers and that the “cap and trade” legislation would benefit agriculture. The President said he thought there was “huge potential around biofuels…Ethanol has been a big boon to many rural communities.” Obama said that the “key for us is to move into the next generation of biofuels,” using wood chips or grasses as feed stock instead of corn.
Here are the stops scheduled so far in the “listening tour”:
July 16, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vilsack will travel to La Crosse, Wisc., to discuss rural economic development.
July 18, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Vilsack will travel to Ringgold, Va., to discuss green jobs and a new energy economy, with a focus on weatherization and carbon sequestration.
July 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Vilsack will travel to St. John’s Parish, La., to discuss rural healthcare.
Aug. 12, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Chu, and Vilsack will travel to Bethel, Alaska, to discuss rural infrastructure, green jobs and a new energy economy, as well as climate change.
Aug. 16, Salazar and Vilsack will travel to Zanesville, Ohio, to discuss green jobs and a new energy economy, with a focus on renewable energies.
Aug. 17, Duncan and Vilsack will travel to Hamlet, N.C., to discuss rural education.
Sept. 28, Salazar and Vilsack will travel to Scottsbluff, Neb., to discuss production agriculture.
Sept. 30, Donovan and Vilsack will travel to Las Cruces, N.M., to discuss rural infrastructure.