In 2009, when Van Jones stepped down from his post as President Obama's special adviser for green jobs, it was amid intense criticism from conservative activists. Now, still a committed Obama supporter, he has his own critique of the administration and of Democrats who became passive after the last presidential election.
In his new book, Rebuild the Dream, out April 4, he points out what he says have been the major missteps made by the White House and Democrats. But he also presents a game plan for how to turn things around. The Root talked to him about his assessment of the failures and successes of the Obama administration, the charged climate that led to his resignation and why, after having been on both sides of the White House gates, he'd rather remain an outsider.
The Root: In Rebuild the Dream, you say there's been a lack of progress since 2008, and it's not all President Obama's fault. Whose fault is it?
Van Jones: The slogan was never "Yes, he can"; it was "Yes, we can." And as I say in the book, too many of us voted and then sat down, as opposed to voting and then standing up. The president's opponents, for two years, practically monopolized the protests, and the Tea Party [was active] … and you couldn't find progressives marching and rallying. There was no evidence that there was anything alive on our side after the inauguration.
In my book I lay out seven mistakes that were made, some on the White House side and some on the grassroots side. One reason I can write a book like this is because I was a grassroots outsider, then a White House insider, and then I was a grassroots outsider again. So I have a 360[-degree] view on our mistakes. My book parcels out about 50-50 responsibility, divided between insiders and outsiders.
TR: What's one thing you think President Obama is doing really well, and one thing you wish he would do differently?
VJ: President Obama volunteered to become the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. He didn't drive it into the iceberg; someone else drove it into the iceberg. And we're still floating — we may not be going 100 miles per hour, but we're still floating. We were headed toward a second Great Depression, and under his leadership we've had a dozen or so months of private-sector job growth. If all he had done was that, he would deserve to be applauded.
I think one of the worst mistakes he's made is not clarifying what he means when he says things like "jobs created or saved." "Or saved" always sounds like a dodge or hedge, when in fact, the jobs that he saved are probably the most important thing he did.
He spent a third of his stimulus on aid to states and cities. That means the jobs he was saving were teachers, firefighters, nurses, cops, first responders, librarians — he saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of America's everyday heroes, who society would collapse without. He kept the cops on the beat. He kept us from having to fight fires with a garden hose all across America. He never talked about it in those evocative terms.
TR: You also wrote about the reckless extremism of Republicans. Where and how have we seen this play out in your career and in the overall political and social climate of the country?
VJ: From ACORN to Shirley Sherrod to myself, there was a really ugly period there in 2009 where the backlashers threw the rulebook out and started manufacturing media viruses to knock out people close to the president, especially African Americans. That's a very ugly part of history, but I certainly experienced some of the worst behavior of the backlash, including personal threats and public smears.
I think we've come a long way, actually, in terms of recognizing that some of the media scandals that get whipped up are phony, but we weren't as used to it in September 2009, when I decided to step down.
TR: When it comes to those "manufactured media viruses," will it make a difference that Andrew Breitbart isn't with us anymore?
VJ: I think that the genie is out of the bottle with regards to people's knowledge that you can trick the media with sensational video, so I don't think that tactic is going to go away. The people who invented the nuclear bomb are gone, but weapons are still widely available. I think only vigilance on the part of the media and on the part of the viewing public will be a barrier to Breitbart-like stunts, and I think that's where we have to place our faith.
TR: How much of the use of those "weapons" against you and others, Sherrod, ACORN and the Obama administration has been fueled by or embraced because of racism?
VJ: I talk about that in the book a little by looking at some of the reports that the NAACP has released. Minimally, the Tea Party benefited from a certain amount of racial anxiety in the country. I take them at their word when they say they are not motivated by racial animus. I certainly do remember that there was a lot of right-wing skullduggery and some trickery for Bill Clinton a decade or so ago. But what troubles me is that there are known white-supremacist and nativist elements operating in and around the Tea Party that have never been appropriately challenged, denounced and expelled by the Tea Party leadership.
TR: Isn't it odd for you to criticize the Tea Party for links to extremist groups, when you feel that the same type of criticism has been unfairly lodged against you?
VJ: Here's the difference: I never saw and never signed that 9/11 Truth petition, and I've publicly said I do not agree. You can't disassociate yourself [from] something you've never been associated with. But I've publicly stated that I have no association with them and I don't agree with conspiracy theory, and even they have said that they have no signature from me on their petition. So that whole thing was made up and phony. I was falsely accused of being associated with them.
As [for] my younger years, where I was a colorful, radical youth activist in the Bay Area, the only reason they knew about it is because I proudly talked about that history. And I've also talked about my journey. Like a lot of people, when you're in your 20s you think one way, and when you're in your 40s you think another way. I'm happy to be judged on stuff I used to think, and I don't mind bearing the cross for anything that I've actually done or said.
But I do think that organizations, when they have violent and hateful elements in them, should be more loud and more clear about their rejection of those people.
TR: Would you ever work in the Obama administration again?
VJ: I think what I'm doing right now is pretty good. I was a very good insider. Even my worst opponents didn't criticize anything I did on the inside. They tried to distort stuff from my past, but nobody, even my worst critics, said I did anything other than a good job. But having played both roles, I think I play the outside role better.
I'm so glad to have that experience. It will always be the high point of my life and career. I'm sure it will be the first [thing in] my obituary, no matter what else I do in my life, but I think, to the consternation of the people who want to stop progress, I'm going to prove myself to be much more of a threat to their backlash agenda on the outside than I could ever be on the inside.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is the staff writer for The Root.