The 'no sizzle' politician: Why Tom Vilsack is a good Agriculture Secretary, but fizzled as a presidential hopeful

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

The Fine Print

Tom Vilsack may still have presidential dreams, but don’t expect him to be a candidate in 2016.

“I don’t have sizzle,” the current Secretary of Agriculture and former Democratic governor of Iowa told “The Fine Print” when asked if he’d consider running for president again.

Vilsack was the first to announce his candidacy in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, but said that campaign, “absent some cataclysmic event,” was his last.

“I remember very distinctly visiting with a labor leader friend of mine during all of that, and he looked at me and said, ‘you know, you just don't have sizzle,’” Vilsack said with a laugh.

When Vilsack pulled out of the race, he immediately threw his support behind longtime friend Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton is weighing a second bid for the White House in 2016, Vilsack stopped short of giving the former secretary of state his endorsement for a second time and said she’ll have to make the decision to run for herself.

”I have an extraordinarily high opinion of Secretary Clinton,” Vilsack said. “I think she would be a tough and principled leader, and I think she has a breadth of experience that is unparalleled, and so, obviously, she rightfully should be considered as someone who ought to run or should consider running for president.”

From his current position leading the Department of Agriculture, Vilsack said one of the biggest challenges facing the nation’s agriculture industry is the fact that political leaders haven’t been able to reach an agreement on overhauling the nation’s immigration system.

“We are not realizing our fullest potential in American agriculture because there is not the certainty of workforce that a lot of producers need,” he said. “It's an unfortunate and tragic circumstance. It’s costing jobs; it's costing income; and it’s really the kind of situation that's totally preventable.”

“There are actually folks moving operations outside the United States that could continue to be in the United States if they were guaranteed a workforce,” he added. “And the cost of vegetables is slightly higher in part, I think, because of that instability.”

Vilsack also pointed to a number of changes within agriculture - ranging from small organic farms feeding a specialized market to large farms using biotechnology to maximize production - that have forced the industry to adapt and have caused a strain on rural communities.

"It depends on where you are and what your interests are,” Vilsack said of the effects of the changing agricultural landscape. “I think there are a number of different types of farm operations in this country today, and I think that the future of farming is in the diversity of size and the type of operation it is.”

He pointed to innovations within large-scale farming as having posed a major challenge to the agriculture industry: “As agriculture got more efficient, we actually needed fewer farmers to meet the food needs of this country, and that has had a strain and created a stress in rural communities.”

Vilsack said organic farming presents “high-value added opportunities” for the present and future of agriculture, but also noted that it represents a “relatively small percentage” of the nation’s overall food production.

“We have, I would say, probably 300,000 what I would refer to as farmers who spend most of their time farming. Of that number … only 18,000 are certified organic producers,” he said. “They farm on about 1 percent of the entire farm land in the country, so it's very small in terms of the number of acres. However, they represent 4 to 5 percent of sales.”

Still, he hopes that organic farming brings “entrepreneurship and innovation of a different sort into rural areas.”

For more on why Vilsack says the failure to achieve immigration reform is hurting agriculture, and to hear his impressions on the new film based on the life of Cesar Chavez and his movement to unionize farm workers, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Steven Cocklin, and Anne Cocklin contributed to this episode.