EP 13-CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny Discusses the Biden Administration and Agriculture on the New Episode of Wherever Jon May Roam

December 8, 2020

EP 13-CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny Discusses the Biden Administration and Agriculture on the New Episode of Wherever Jon May Roam

Dec 8, 2020

From his roots on a Nebraska corn farm, Jeff Zeleny has gone on to become one of the nation's foremost experts on presidential politics, covering the White House and campaigns for the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. Now as CNN's Senior White House Correspondent, he's spent every day of 2020 with his finger on the pulse of the election for U.S. president.

 

In this episode, Jeff joins Jon to talk about the issues that defined the campaign, what we can expect as President-Elect Joe Biden transitions to the presidency, the future for President Donald Trump, and what it all means for America's corn farmers. With the economy and the COVID-19 response hanging in the balance, he also offers insights about what a Biden presidency means for agriculture-focused issues like trade and the environment. 

 

And, Jeff shares tales about how growing up in the heart of corn country shaped his world view and his work ethic as a world-renowned journalist.

 

 

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Jeff Zeleny:

I think we'll have to hear more from president-elect Biden on what he's going to do with China and trade policies. But I still remember a bumper sticker on a pickup truck that was always at the grain elevator, this was during the '80s farm crisis, it said, "Trade not aid." And I remember my dad always used to talk about, we just want a fair shot.

 

Dusty Weis:

Hello, and welcome to Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association Podcast. This is where leaders, growers, and stakeholders in the corn industry can turn for big picture conversations about the state of the industry and its future. I'm Dusty Weis, and I'll be introducing your host association, CEO, Jon Doggett. You can join Jon every month as he travels the country on a mission to advocate for America's corn farmers. From the fields of the corn belt to the DC Beltway, we'll make sure that the growers who feed America have a say in the issues that are important to them with key leaders who are shaping the future of agriculture.

 

Dusty Weis:

In this episode, after a long and unconventional presidential campaign, president elected like to Joe Biden is getting set to transition to the White House. And we are going to talk with someone who was at every campaign stop with both candidates about what got us to this point, what we can expect in the months ahead and what it all means for corn farmers. CNN, senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, who grew up on a corn farm in Nebraska will join us with all his insights.

 

Dusty Weis:

If you haven't yet, make sure you're subscribed to this podcast in your favorite app. That way you can take us with you in your truck, your tractor, on your next trip, and never miss an update from Jon. Also make sure that you follow the NCGA on twitter @NationalCorn and sign up for the National Corn Growers Association newsletter at ncga.com. And with that it's time to once again, introduce Jon, Jon Doggett, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Jon we're staring down the barrel of a presidential transition, it has been a long and winding road. Certainly I don't think that there's ever been a boring presidential election, at least not in my life, but this one has been more interesting and more complicated than most. But on January 20th, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and like any presidential transition that is going to have implications for America's corn industry,

 

Jon Doggett:

Dusty, you know, it's our job at NCGA to monitor the political winds of change and to make sure America's corn growers are positioned to thrive and to do well, no matter who's in office. So we wanted to take this opportunity to dig a little bit deeper and explore how the new presidential administration's policies will impact agriculture. And today we're joined by guest who's arguably the foremost expert in this presidential campaign and its implications. Jeff Zeleny is CNN's senior White House correspondent, and he's covered presidential politics for more than 20 years for outlets like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. Jeff, thanks for joining us on the podcast.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Hey Jon, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

 

Jon Doggett:

You bet.

 

Dusty Weis:

And we really appreciate your jumping on. Jeff, It might surprise folks to hear it but even as a globe trotting journalist who regularly reports to work at the White House, you've got your roots, like so many people, on the farm in the heart of corn country. Tell us a little bit about your background and where you were raised.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Well, hey I grew up in Exeter, Nebraska, which is in Fillmore County, Nebraska, which is just about an hour West or so of Lincoln, the state Capitol, of course, and it is the heart of corn country. I grew up on a farm. We had corn and soybeans and raised hogs and cattle. My mom still lives on that farm. My nephews help her farm the ground and she rents some of it out as well. So she's still the CEO of our operation, but look, I grew up with a field of corn looking just out my bedroom window. I went to a small high school Exeter, Nebraska High School at the time. So when I moved out to Washington, the summer of 2001, actually when people heard that I went to Exeter they thought it was the fancy prep school on the East Coast. And I said, "No, no, it's the other Exeter, in Exeter, Nebraska."

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I had 12 kids in my class, but look, I went to the University of Nebraska, studied journalism and political science there. And then have been very fortunate to work at a bunch of newspapers. So when I did get to Washington, people said, "How did you get from the farm to Washington? How did that happen?" And I said, "Well, I drove East." I mean, they were sort of surprised that a farm kid could get hired by the New York Times and whatever, but I literally did go from Nebraska to the Des Moines register my first job out of college, the Chicago Tribune and then I ended up in Washington. So I literally did just drive East, but I still very much have farm love and roots in my background. And God willing, I'll be home for Christmas but we'll see.

 

Jon Doggett:

Well that's an interesting story, Jeff, like so many people who find themselves in Washington, DC from the hinterlands, we all have a different story and how we got here and what it was like. But tell us a little bit more about how did your experience growing up shape, how you do your job today?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I think the biggest thing is just the work ethic. My dad at the time was running our family farm and he was just a great believer in, you get up early and you work hard and you work throughout the day. So I think now any day that I have at work even though some of these have been pretty crazy and chaotic nothing is as hard as the work on a farm. So I think the biggest thing is just the work ethic. It really has just instilled that in me. And I think just honesty as well. When I talk to my audience and do reporting, I have in mind, people in my family and people I grew up with who are listening to this and they are trusting you to deliver the news. So I think that for whatever reason, I think it's probably because I knew I wouldn't make a very good farmer.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I just don't quite have those skillsets. I wanted to be a journalist from a very young age and my dad would read newspapers and successful farming and a lot of other magazines and things. And I would just watch him. I really wanted to be a reporter really from a very early age because you can ask anyone any question. That's the job to ask people questions. So I think that I had a bit of a curiosity bug I was interested in just being on the front row of history, I never could have predicted I'd be this fortunate, but it's been pretty interesting.

 

Jon Doggett:

So Jeff, to pivot to where we're going to be going in the next few weeks, the next few months, the next few years, who are going to be the major players in the Biden administration.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Look, we're already seeing the beginnings of the forming of the government and it really is sort of a throwback to who he was surrounded by and his long run is his Senator and his vice-president, I'm thinking back to the transitions of governor George W. Bush in Texas and Senator Barack Obama, they surrounded themselves by some new figures who they didn't know as well. This is a different time because Biden was elected, whether you like it or not because of his long experience in Washington. So he's surrounding himself by people who have worked with him for a long time. So I think that as we record this now the week after Thanksgiving we know the secretary of state, we know the secretary of Homeland security, we know the treasury secretary nominee, all these have to get confirmed in the Senate.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

We don't know who's going to be the Ag secretary, for example, we know some names of that, but there is an incredible push and pull underway for diversity in the cabinet from regional diversity to ideological diversity, to a racial diversity. But I think the most important people in the Biden administration are going to be the president-elect himself, obviously Joe Biden. He knows how government works. I can't think of someone who has come into office, there isn't someone actually in our history who's come to office who has that much knowledge about the government, for good or bad? I don't think we're going to have many surprises from Joe Biden. I don't think we're going to wake up many mornings and be like, "Oh, what did he tweet? What did he say?" It may actually be fairly boring, but I think the biggest task without question is the economy and getting a handle on coronavirus.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I think that that is going to be at the center of everything in the first 100 days, certainly. And how he does that will probably give us a good window into how successful or not his administration is. But I think, I guess the economic team first and foremost is going to be some of the most important people in his administration. And also I would also say Mitch McConnell, of course, Mitch McConnell's not in his administration, but I'm fascinated to see if Republicans maintain their control of the Senate. And that of course is all dependent on what happens in Georgia on January 5th, as we know, there are two runoff races in the state of Georgia. And if Democrats win both well, then it's a 50/50 tie, so vice president Kamala Harris will break the tie. But I think the Biden is preparing for Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and boy, he is so important to this entire Biden equation. And now he decides to conduct himself. He may be one of the most important people other than the president in terms of going forward, what type of policies get enacted.

 

Dusty Weis:

Jeff, you brought up the pending pick for Ag secretary and certainly that's something that has a big impact on the world of agriculture going forward here. But there are two very different candidates who are being considered for that job right now. What are some of the factors that president-elect Biden has to balance in not just selecting that cabinet seat, but in filling out his cabinet in general,

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Just talking with advisors to president-elect Biden and he has a transition team which has been working throughout the summer and the fall getting ready for this. And that's not being presumptive. That is what incoming presidents are supposed to do because of the presidential transition act really after 911. And there was a huge study and a make-up of how transitions need to be more forward-leaning and really there has to be a government in place. So because of all that, there are a couple different names. Former North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp is a name we hear mentioned a lot for Ag secretary. We also are in recent days hearing more about a Congresswoman named Marcia Fudge from Ohio. So those would be some very different spectrums, I guess, both Democrats of course, but one from a farm state in particular and one who might speak to more of the other programs of USDA, of course, it's a sprawling huge agency of which would speak to more hunger issues in other matters.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I'm not sure if it will be either one of those two. We also hear Tom Vilsack's name, of course, the former Ag secretary, former governor of Iowa. He of course served for eight years as Ag secretary. I'd be a little surprised if he would come back into the mix here, frankly, but someone from the West coast, California could also be huge Ag state as well, could also be in a mixture. But I think first and foremost, I think the thing that drives most of these decisions is overall makeup of the cabinet.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Someone described to me that putting a cabinet together is like putting a puzzle together and you really need to have at least president-elect Biden has said, he's committed to having diversity. He wants his cabinet to look like America. Well, we'll see if there's a Republican in the cabinet. There has been in the Obama administration, he had two Republicans serving at a different period. In the Bush administration, there was a Democrat serving in his cabinet. So we'll see if that happens in the Biden administration. There could be a Republican for Ag secretary, but I think that I would be a little surprised if that was the case this time. So we'll see, it could be Heidi Heitkamp, Marcia Fudge, or some name we're not even thinking of.

 

Dusty Weis:

And Jon, of course, as the CEO of NCGA, you spend a lot of time in Washington advocating on behalf of America's corn farmers, you know, all the players that are under consideration for Ag secretary right now, what does the NCGA want to see in an Ag secretary? And how do you go about ensuring that whoever the pic is that they are successful?

 

Jon Doggett:

The most important thing that we're looking for in an Ag secretary is someone that will listen. Someone who will take the time to say, "I really need to know how this affects people who produce corn. I need to understand how this affects that rural community, like Exeter, Nebraska." How does that affect those folks there? Don't be too concerned about their partisan views, but will they listen? And once they listen, I think we have a great story to tell, and hopefully, we will have some opportunity to build that relationship that benefits both the secretary and the folks that produce corn in this country. There's been a lot of discussion in recent days about if this person were to get it, or if that person were to get it.

 

Jon Doggett:

One of the opportunities that may avail itself in this selection and it certainly, we are not in it, let me emphasize this about 18 times, we are not advocating for one candidate over another, but to get someone who is a little bit outside of what we've seen in the norm might be to our benefit if we make it to our benefit because you know what, it's not the department for agriculture, it's the department of agriculture. And certainly, if we can expand the view that the average American has of USDA as a very large department, that has a lot of people doing a lot of different things, that might make it a little easier to pass a farm bill, might be a little easier to defend it spending at USDA. So you know, that the opportunity for us to bring more and more Americans to see what USDA does I think is going to be a benefit to us.

 

Jon Doggett:

And I think any of the folks that you've mentioned any of the folks I've seen mentioned in the press in recent days, all of them, I think to a certain degree, one way or another can do that. And I think that is going to be really, really important, particularly as we look at redistricting and that's going to happen here in the next few years because of the census and the reapportionment. Right now there are 435 house members and only 41 of those house districts in the United States of America have 20,000 or more farmers in that district. And most of these districts have 700 to 900,000 people. And so to think that there's only 41 that have more than 20,000 farmers in it, that gives you an idea that we really need to expand the visual of what USDA is all about. It isn't just about farmers.

 

Jon Doggett:

It's about very obviously and very importantly, the people who produce the food, but then there are the folks that make sure it's safe. The folks that make sure it gets transported around either the country or the world. It's also about how do you feed people who are hungry, whether they're in the United States. And unfortunately, there's way too many people who are hungry in the United States. And how do we get food overseas to folks who also need that food? So we might have, and I hope we have an opportunity to showcase USDA at its very best for the entire country, because that's the way we're going to have more success and more support for the functions at USDA.

 

Dusty Weis:

So Jeff you've covered presidential campaigns going all the way back to 2000 Bush-Gore and you've covered every transition that has come about as a result. How do you see the first hundred days of the Biden administration unfolding?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Well, look, I think it is going to be dominated by really two things, the economic recession and the pandemic. I guess in my history, the thing that I compare it the most to is 2009 when Obama and Biden were coming in, of course, the country was in the middle of a deep recession. The difference is and I've been thinking about this a lot. If you'll remember in the final months of 2008, going into the election, the vote on the heart bill, TARP was so controversial. The bank bailout bill, basically, but Congress did it in the lame-duck session. Republicans and Democrats came together in locked arms and did it in hopes of saving the economy. Well, we're not seeing that at the end of this lame-duck session, we're not seeing at this point, Republicans and Democrats setting aside differences and giving more aid to unemployed Americans, hungry Americans.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I think that what we're seeing now is going to set the tone for the first 100 days. I can't recall a split-screen moment, at least in my lifetime of the stock market being as robust as it is and the food lines, we see pictures of food lines so long, and I'm just not sure that we cover that enough. We talk about it enough. And I think of farmers, I think of food. I mean, there is a hunger crisis in this country and I'm not sure that that is addressed enough in Washington, that shouldn't be partisan people waiting in, in a food line for three hours I bet it's pretty much a mix of Democrats and Republicans. I mean, this is not just a one party issue. So I think that that sets the table if you will, for the first 100 days.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

But I think the first 100 days of the Biden administration, will be consumed by some type of big economic stimulus package. And I'm guessing, we can already hear it, a word that really has not been in the lexicon for much the last four years deficit. We've not talked much about the deficit, but I can already hear people talking about, Oh, the deficit, well look, I mean, spending has been pretty much a runaway over the last four years. So we'll see how that changes the debate next year in a democratic administration. But look, I think most economists will tell you that to jumpstart, the economy there needs to be another round of economic stimulus. So I think that will be driving everything. We also know the Biden new administration and coming administration is going to do a lot of executive action.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Probably reversing a lot of things that the Trump administration did from some climate agreements to some immigration things perhaps. But I really think the bread and butter issues of the economy are going to really speak to the successes or failures of the Biden administration. So what I sense that a lot of Republican senators I talked to hope they get something done and work together on some things. I think it will be a new day in Washington, every inauguration ushers in a new day, a new moment. And one thing that's been sort of interesting is to go back in time and listen to some concession speeches that some presidents have given. And I was listening to the Al Gore one the other day, that he gave in December of 2000 must have been a very hard speech to give, but he gave it an inauguration day on January 20th, 2001, we would have had no idea that 911 would be coming in nine months, but there really was a period of that going into the spring.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

It was a new day and there was some cooperation on things. So I actually hope perhaps I'm being naive, but I think that despite partisan differences, I think that there's an impetus on both sides to get something done. Republicans in 2022 have a very difficult Senate map and they know that they will have to have some accomplishments on the board. It won't just be blocking the Biden administration. So I guess overall, one of the big takeaways from this election that I think feeds into next year, this was not a landslide win for Joe Biden. It certainly was not for Democrats. I mean, Joe Biden at the end of the day, history will show that more people voted for him than any other president in history, more people also voted for Donald Trump than any other candidate in history. So huge interest in the election, but boy down-ballot, Joe Biden did much better than Democrats.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So maybe the country was sending everyone a message, they want some divided government, but let's hope they can come to an agreement on some things. So we'll see about that, but the takeaway of the election, if you look at the map and I love studying the map, just sitting down and see how counties went and things, Joe Biden did much, much better than Hillary Clinton, but down Ballot Democrats did not because they know they have a brand problem. The democratic party has a brand problem with this country. And I think that that is something that Joe Biden basically squeaked by because people were voting against Donald Trump, no doubt. And I think people saw Joe Biden as this interim figure to try and calm the waters a little bit. But this was not a big referendum on the democratic party being the direction that the country wants to go, not by a long shot. And Jon mentioned redistricting. I mean, we'll see that play out in spades and redistricting because Republicans had a very good run at state legislative seats in November.

 

Dusty Weis:

Jon, when you look at a map that is increasingly, neither read nor blue, but purple and when you look to the first hundred days of the Biden administration, what do you hope to see in that time?

 

Jon Doggett:

Well, a friend of mine and I we're talking over the weekend and both of us are Washington types. And we both said, "It would really be nice just to be bored, really bored for a while." I'm very struck and Jeff mentioned, I'm struck by the competency of the folks that have been named so far by vice-president Biden to serve in the administration. These are folks that have been around a long time. I'm one of those folks that say if you want to come to Washington, your best attribute ought not to be that you don't know anything about Washington.

 

Jon Doggett:

For those that say government should be run like a business, well, if you're going to run a business, you're going to want competent people running that business. And you could disagree with, with some of the folks that Joe Biden is going to appoint, but certainly they do know how government works and that's important. And we're going to have to work our way through that process and work with those folks. A lot of those folks that he's named, we have worked with in one form or another over the years and in agriculture. And I think we will have some good opportunities if we make those opportunities happen.

 

Dusty Weis:

Jeff, I want to come back to something that Jon just said there, he was tongue in cheek, but he said, we want to be bored. People may have varying opinions about the last four years, but one thing that's pretty much universally agreed upon is that it hasn't been boring. It has been unconventional unpredictable, it's kept journalists like you very busy. So with a potential return to normalcy looming, are you worried as a journalist about being bored?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Well, look I mean, I wouldn't mind not waking up to a tweet and wondering like what that means or what that, there is a bit of a regular order to things. My first White House I covered, like I said, was President Bush and then President Obama. And there was not despite policy differences. Things were pretty much the same, sort of knew what the president was going to do. There was a regular order to things. I mean, President Trump was elected as a disruptor, no doubt about it. He would call that one of his best attributes. So I think the Biden administration will be more to a lack of a better way to say it boring. I'm fine with that. I think that look, there are so many challenges facing the country. I think the biggest thing over the last four years, and I think so many books will be written about this and historians will be studying this period as an inflection point, I think in our country and we'll see which way we go from here.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

But there are so many distractions and shiny objects that are chased one way or the other that really have nothing to do with the matter at hand. I find it extraordinary that we are here at the end of this year, we can see the hospitalizations, we can see the pandemic. I know just by talking with my mom back on the farm in Exeter, she tells me every day, someone new who has coronavirus. Someone else is in the hospital, the Fillmore County Hospital in Geneva is chuck full. They're sending people to Lincoln, Omaha [inaudible 00:24:10]. My uncle, my 93-year-old uncle, he died of COVID in a nursing home in Fairmont, Nebraska. He had not seen anyone for eight months. He was locked in. He followed the news. He was very plugged into things and apparently traveling respiratory therapists going from nursing home to nursing home, infected some people. So this affects everyone.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I think enough of this, like fighting over the election. COVID is a very serious thing. Yes, it has politics in it, no doubt. But I think that this is something that I guess it's not boring in that respect, but it is, we should focus on the important things. And I think the important things are just getting this out of the way. And I think the U.S. standing in the world has been really hurt by this. Countries look to the United States for leadership and COVID has shown some issues. So this is going to be something that we'll be unraveling for a long time here, but I think COVID in the economy are important. And I think it will be, I guess if we call that boring, it will be refreshing, I guess, in some respects to focus on the matter at hand here and not all these sideshows.

 

Dusty Weis:

Certainly, COVID and the economy were two of the most discussed issues in this presidential campaign. But from the Biden campaign, we also heard a lot about climate and we heard a lot about trade policy. When you look to the Biden administration and its next four years, how do you see them taking a different tack on those two issues, which are near and dear to corn farmers?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

For sure. I mean, I think that at some degree it will be a return to what was happening before President Trump took office in terms of climate. I think on the first day a president like Biden has said, he's going to rejoin signing order and try and rejoin the Paris Accords. In terms of the practical of functions of this, I guess we'll just have to see what the next iteration of that is. I mean, this is not 2016. Everything has changed with the economy. So I think the burden on the Biden administration will be to A, sell this policy to the American people. And the trade, I think is the biggest question. We've sure not heard much talked about so far in terms of China. I mean, when I was in the room in Wilmington, Delaware the other week when Joe Biden was announcing his new national security foreign policy team and the word China wasn't raised, that of course is front and center in every trade discussion.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So I think in terms of farmers, I mean that is something that the Trump administration certainly had a mixed record on China, but I think the disruption and the unpredictability actually served the U.S. pretty well in that respect that in many cases, he kept a president Xi Jinping on his feet. They didn't know exactly what they were going to do. So I think we'll have to hear more from president-elect Biden on what he's going to do with China and trade policies. But I still remember every time we talk about trade, I still remember a bumper sticker on a pickup truck that was always at the grain elevator in our nearby town, this is during the '80s farm crisis, it said trade not aid. And I remember my dad always used to talk about, we just want a fair shot. We just want a level playing field to be able to sell our goods and trade our things.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So there was a lot of aid given to farmers in the Trump administration, without question, he would talk about that a lot. And he would call them my farmers, my farmers I've given you aid. Well that's certainly appreciated, but I think that people want more opportunity to do more trade on the market. So I think aid is something that, that will be a question, I guess, if the Biden administration continues that, but talk about contributing to the deficit and just being a band-aid for not an overall solution. So we'll have to keep our eye on all of that, but who he appoints as ambassadors will be important and the U.S. Trade Representative, we still don't know who's going to serve in that position, boy that will sure be important as well.

 

Dusty Weis:

To Jeff's point, Jon, what does the NCGA hope to see as it pertains to trade and climate from the Biden administration and how do farmers stand to benefit here?

 

Jon Doggett:

You know, on climate, I think we have some huge opportunities. First of all, let's realize the cap and trade has gone, it's dead, it's not going to happen, but there's certainly a lot of demand for ways to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The corn plant is probably one of the most unique and wonderful biological events that there is out there because it can do just that it takes carbon out of the air, puts it in the soil and in the meantime produces food feed and fuel. So we're really in a good spot in the corn industry right now, if this is done right, if it is done in such a way that it is more voluntary, if it's, incentive-based rather than regulatorily based.

 

Jon Doggett:

So if we can break through and show the benefits of incentivizing farmers to continue and accelerate the innovation that they have been utilizing on their farms in order to reduce that carbon in the atmosphere, I think we have some wonderful opportunities. It has to be done right and the devil is in the details. Devil is in the details, not only in any legislation that might pass, but the devil is in the details in the regulatory processes as well. And that's where really you get to personnel being policy when it comes to political appointments, whether it be at USDA or EPA or any of the other departments or agencies, climate is a real opportunity for us if we do it right. Trade obviously we can export a lot more corn from the United States, whether it be in the form of number two, yellow dent corn or in the form of chickens or dairy or pork or beef or ethanol or distillers dry grain.

 

Jon Doggett:

We have so many things that we can export to a world that is very much hungry for those products. So we have some great opportunities but we're going to have to work at it. We can't do one of two things which oftentimes American do either sit back and complain or sit back and figure somebody else is going to do it. So as far as NCJ is concerned, we're going to be active. We're going to be involved and we're going to win some, probably lose some, but as long as our organization stays united and our industry stays United, I think the sky is the limit.

 

Dusty Weis:

Jeff and Jon, I know that prognostication is not either one of your games. And certainly if we had been sitting around in 2016, trying to prognosticate what the Trump term would hold, we would have all struck out entirely, but any predictions for 2021, Jeff, as far as what we're in store for under the new administration?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I think it may be a bit of a back to the future kind of moment. I think it will be sort of a leveling of things. Again, I think the economy and coronavirus are front and center in all of this. So hopefully the vaccine distribution gets rolled out properly and the economy gets back on track. I don't think it will be a term of a lot of big things happen. I think it will be a lot of some things changing and a return to more traditional norms, but in terms of big ticket items, I don't know that it's a caretaker presidency. Joe Biden has talked about being a bridge to the future.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Look, I think that the intermural struggle inside the democratic party is going to be one of the most fascinating things and the degree to which president-elect Biden handles that is going to be fascinating I think. So, and I think that 2024 is going to start very quickly. And I guess that will be one thing that we talk about. If President Trump goes forward and starts immediately running for 2024, that will, A, frustrate, a lot of Republicans in the Senate who are hoping for a clear path. So that's something else I'm keeping our eye on. What does President Trump do? And what impact does that have on, A, legislation, but B, the rebuilding and rebirth of the Republican party?

 

Jon Doggett:

Let me ask Jeff, just an aside question. If President Trump decides to run in 2024, how's that going to affect the Mike Pence's or the Ted Cruz's or Marco Rubio or any of the folks that ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, do you see those folks standing aside, or do you see a fight?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I see a fight. I do not see folks standing aside for president Trump, at least most. And I think that will be, I'll tell you what, when you talk to some of these Republicans and I won't name names here, but just in generally, they would want nothing more than for him to exit stage right and allow them to come forward here. So I think there'll be a few that probably come out and poke the bear maybe, and see how it goes. Others may hold back. But I do not anticipate president Trump having a free pass to the nomination. I will be surprised if he ends up running again. I think that this is a good placeholder position for him, something to keep talking about, but I view Nikki Haley, I view Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, others as a voices that will probably challenge president Trump at some point. So we'll see.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

But I think in terms of the rebirth of the Republican party, he holds a lot of cards in that, but I don't see him getting a free pass. I think vice-president Pence is someone who may be a loser in this. I really don't see much of an appetite for him as much as some of these other new faces. He'll probably have a much trickier role to speak out against President Trump than some others might. But I think you'll see people respectfully say, it's time to turn a page.

 

Jon Doggett:

And another question, Jeff and we're looking at the Democrats particularly in the house. I think that for me personally, much too much has been written and said about the squad. And when I look at the squad versus the three Democrats who defeated three Republican incumbents in 2018 in the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of those Democrats was a retired Navy captain spent a lot of time on surface warships. Another was a federal prosecutor and the last was a CIA a operative. There's three women who are the counterpart to the squad in the democratic caucus. And one of those women was very vocal in a recent caucus meeting about let's quit talking about defunding the police, let's quit talking about the crazy stuff. Do you see this split in the democratic party to be somewhat similar to what the Republicans dealt with with the advent of the Tea party?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I do. I think it's very reminiscent of that. And the Tea party of course, was something that essentially arose out of the Obama administration out of spending other things. And the squad for lack of a better term is something that arose out of the Trump administration. But I mean, the Congresswoman who you were speaking of Abigail Spanberger, she spoke very forcefully during a private democratic caucus meeting after the election saying that this sunk a lot of democratic members of Congress. The defund the police, the socialism label, and other things it's one of the reasons gained 11 seats in Congress. That was something that the leaders of the Republican senatorial committee and the congressional campaign committee on the house side were very pleasantly surprised at the outcome of the November election and were not expecting to have a such gain.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So look, I think the what's happening inside the democratic party will be a huge challenge for Joe Biden. And it will become a big story without a doubt. It's a big tent democratic party, but if you look at the country, boy, I remember, and this isn't that long ago. I know I'm getting older and older, but when I came to Washington to cover, I've also spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, North Dakota had two democratic senators. South Dakota had a democratic Senator, Nebraska, had a democratic Senator. Down the middle of the country there was certainly in Iowa, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley. I think that, I don't know if those days are over, but they might be because of the brand of the democratic party. And I think that that is a huge, huge challenge for Democrats here. I hate to be in nostalgic about this, but I do think that government got more done when there was a little bit more political diversity and geographical diversity inside the parties.

 

Jon Doggett:

Jeff, you mentioned Abigail Spanberger, and she was also on this podcast showing just the caliber of guests that we have on this podcast. But we had Abigail on with Dusty Johnson, a very conservative Republican from South Dakota. And the two of them were on the podcast to talk about the no labels caucus and talk about the efforts that are going on in the house of representatives with that group equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Given that the somewhat narrower majority that the Democrats have in the house. Do you see efforts like the no labels effort to be one that has some potential to be the honest broker to get things done?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I think so. I mean, I think party leadership is something that is I guess that's the one thing that has not changed in this equation. Like that is something that, I mean, for all the changes in the White House, certainly big changes in the executive branch, Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are likely still in their same position. So I think that how leaders on both sides control their caucus will be an interesting thing. But I think that so many members of Congress are so frustrated by just the lack of ability, really to vote on big things or to get anything done.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

There's always been this no labels caucus and the problem solvers caucus. They come together to do things, but it is a leadership driven committee. So I think that this is the last Congress, the last congressional term of Nancy Pelosi. We'll see if she loses her grip a little bit on her caucus this time as well, but boy such a narrow majority. So it's pretty fascinating actually to think of how the executive and legislative branches will work together. We cannot think of a time, I think I read this since 1945, there's not been such a slim house majority for the ruling party, with the party in power in the presidency. So I think there's a lot of opportunity for members to drive this a little bit more than leaders we'll see.

 

Jon Doggett:

Well, then one thing that we always need to remind ourselves and that is if we elect people to the Congress who are going to go to Washington and fight, we really don't have any reason to go ahead and sit back and say, I can't understand why they can't get anything done.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Right, right.

 

Jon Doggett:

So Jeff, in recent years well politicians always have used that old trope about fake news or the media is against me or the media, doesn't portray things accurately, but we've seen that on steroids over the last few years and more and more scrutiny of journalists and networks and their political leanings than we've ever seen before. So how do you, as a member of the press corps navigate this hyper partisan landscape and maintain some degree of objectivity in your report?

 

Jeff Zeleny:

I think the biggest thing is that we have so much more information at our disposal now, more than ever before. Just from your own computer, you can just find out every flavor of news that you want. And I think that is a very good thing. One of the drawbacks is mixed in with this is some fake news and there actually is such a thing as fake news. That's absolutely true. But what it's not is news that you disagree with. Fake news is news that is not true, is made up, is propaganda, is just an example of, there's millions and millions of ballots were fraudulent, that is fake news because it's not proven. So I think what this president,  President Trump has done is a very good job of convincing people to not believe in institutions and to question things that they see that aren't favorable to him.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

And I will tell one story about Donald J. Trump. I first met him in 2011 I believe, I was at the New York Times and he was thinking about running for president back during the 2012 campaign cycle. And I went up to New Hampshire to see him on an early visit. And we had a good interview, a good visit at that point, he was talking about President Obama's birth certificate and things, but I wrote a story. It was in the New York Times, the next day, it wasn't on the front page and visiting New Hampshire and Michael Cohen his now of course, disgrace lawyer. He called me the next day and said, "Mr. Trump liked your story, but wondered why it wasn't on the front page." I thought, well, that's interesting. I thought we covered it. I was actually a little surprised that we would even rank write a story because no one really thought that he'd be running for president, but we did.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Anyway, fast forward to the Iowa State Fair, August, 2015, Donald J. Trump's a candidate for president. He's taking the state fair by storm. I mean, who doesn't love any state fair, but the Iowa State Fair is a special one to me. Walking down Grand Avenue, the Grand Concourse, surrounded by people. He sees me, he knows me by name, which I was surprised at, but he's a very good reader of the newspaper and watching and consumer of news. He's like Jeff, he's like, "I've been wanting to ask you why the hell did you leave the New York Times? That's the best paper in the world" And I said, "Oh, I just thought I'd try my hand at TV." And at that point I still have a picture of me holding a CNN microphone, interviewing him at the Iowa State Fair. Then that was long before he was a critical of CNN long before he was a critical of the New York Times.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

So that became something after he was elected. And even during his first year as president, he's a very different demeanor with reporters one-on-one in the oval office than he does what he projects. He loves stories being written about him, even if they're negative necessarily he tries to shape them. So I've had many one-on-one conversations with him. So his view of the media is different than he wants his supporters view of the media to be. And of course, it's soured a little bit in the last couple of years, but early on, he was definitely a big follower and believer in, I guess what he would now call mainstream media. And that's probably why he was elected.

 

Jeff Zeleny:

Look at those hours and hours and hours of his rallies that ran on TV, which helped to be elected. And again, daily journalism is the most attainable version of the truth at that moment. Some days looking back, you don't get it right. No question at all, you don't get it right, but believe it or not the story and the objective is to try and get it right. And I always have my red state, friends and family in mind as I'm doing my job because I think it's important to be credible. And there's no doubt that media has taken a big hit on that. Some self-inflicted, I would say most not.

 

Jon Doggett:

Well Jeff Zeleny, senior White House correspondent for CNN, this has been a really great discussion and we've talked about an unprecedented campaign and I'm sure you're going to be telling stories about this for many, many more years to come, but we really appreciate your insights. They've been valuable and we appreciate you taking your time to share them today. Jeff Zeleny, the senior White House correspondent for CNN joining us here on the NCGA podcast. And I'm Jon Doggett, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Thanks for listening and tune in next month for another episode of Wherever Jon May Roam the NCGA Podcast.

 

Dusty Weis:

That is going to wrap up this edition of Wherever Jon May Roam the National Corn Growers Association Podcast. New episodes arrive monthly so make sure you subscribe on your favorite app and join us again soon. Visit ncga.com to learn more or sign up for the associations email newsletter. Wherever Jon May Roam is brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association and produced by Podcamp Media, branded podcast production for businesses, podcampmedia.com for the National Corn Growers Association. Thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.

 

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