The Bush administration experienced its first major cabinet shake-up, and, fortunately, it did not involve the agriculture secretary. Rumors had been circulating that a high-ranking member of the administration was about to get the axe, and some speculated that Secretary Ann Veneman's head was on the chopping block.

Instead, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill became the first of President Bush's original cabinet appointees to leave, the victim of a need to do something to get the struggling economy back on track.

O'Neill and economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey resigned on Friday, Dec. 6, after White House aides told them the president had decided to shake up his economic team. Bush, reports said, did not want to be dragged down by the economic problems that did his father in 1992.

Although many economists believe Bush inherited most of his economic woes from the Clinton administration, most felt that neither O'Neill nor Lindsey was doing much to help the cause.

Considered a loose cannon by the financial markets, O'Neill seemed to have little understanding of the plight of most Americans. When nominated for the Treasury post, he initially refused to sell $100 million in Alcoa stock he earned as CEO of the company to avoid a conflict of interest.

In contrast, Veneman's tenure at USDA has been relatively free of the gaffes or missteps that dogged O'Neill. The biggest flap came last winter when North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad claimed the secretary had invited the Canadian agriculture minister to lobby against the U.S. farm bill.

Veneman was criticized for not being more proactive on the farm bill. But considering the reaction of Congress to her predecessors' farm bill proposals — which were labeled “dead on arrival” — she probably decided not to waste her time.

Rather than being a farm bill visionary, Veneman's strengths appear to be in administration, overseeing a department that touches almost every American in some aspect, and foreign trade, the area where she began her career with USDA.

While Democratic senators — Conrad, again — have been carping about loan rates for oilseed crops, most observers give USDA high marks for its quick implementation of a complicated farm bill.

Other Democrats have criticized Veneman for toeing the administration line on disaster assistance legislation. But, unlike O'Neill, Veneman has never said she was opposed to more assistance for farmers, only that the costs had to be offset by cuts in the farm bill.

More importantly, Veneman and her staff have defended the farm bill at a time when foreign governments and most of this nation's newspapers and network news operations have been unloading on it with charges that it was “welfare for corporate farmers.”

Veneman's best days may be yet to come as the United States becomes more involved in the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations and in multi-lateral trade pacts such as NAFTA and the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.

It's an area that she obviously enjoys and one that many farmers and their organizations tend to shy away from. She has already helped resolve some difficult trade standoffs such as Russia's boycott of U.S. poultry. But that may be just the beginning.

flaws@primediabusiness.com