Van Jones isn't looking back in anger

The special advisor to the president for Green Jobs talks about the challenges and myths of creating green jobs. Video by Gaby Bruna & Jen Carpenter.
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nobody has embodied the promise and the pitfalls of the Obama presidency quite like Van Jones.

A year ago, he was the White House "green jobs czar," a best-selling author and a community leader brought in by the president to transform the American economy with clean energy.

The economy wasn't transformed, but the czar's reputation was. Glenn Beck and other conservative critics dug up unsavory items on Jones -- that he once called himself a communist, that he signed a statement in support of the 9/11 "truthers" and that he described President Obama's Republican critics as a part of the lower gastrointestinal tract. He was forced to resign after six months on the job.

"The last time I was here, I was a White House official," Jones told students Wednesday at the "Campus Progress" annual gathering at the Omni Shoreham. "And now I'm not! That sucks!"

Now sadder but wiser, Jones visited the liberal group, an offshoot of John Podesta's Center for American Progress, to give the kids some perspective on his -- and Obama's -- rise and decline. "I'm just like the rest of America," he said, invoking the millions who have lost their homes or can't find work. "These are days of hope and heartbreak."

The analogy doesn't hold up, because Jones has only himself to blame for his downfall. But he has learned something since, and he counseled those frustrated with Obama's lack of progress to look inward. "Honestly, we're a little spoiled," he said, likening "Generation Obama" to those who aspire to look like a fitness-magazine model ("That's called hope") but haven't lost those extra 15 pounds ("That's called change").

The former revolutionary appealed to the students to accept incremental progress, telling them to resist "the despair people want to pull you back to because we didn't get everything done in 18 months." And the onetime radical encouraged the students to develop some perspective. "We're trying to build a pro-democracy movement in a country that at least for eight years was run by straight-up authoritarians, and it's not going to be easy," he submitted. Obama, he argued, "has done superhuman levels of achievement, but the hole is so much bigger than any other president has faced."

It was a useful contribution to the debate over Obama's trouble, from a man who caused some of that trouble. Did Obama and his advisers overpromise? Did they overreach? Did they underestimate the opposition's strength and Washington's inertia? Or was Obama denied credit for real achievements?

All of the above, probably -- but Obama's biggest problem is that he set impossibly high expectations. As a reminder of this problem, the man preceding Jones to the stage Wednesday was Jim Messina, Obama's deputy chief of staff, who clearly hadn't shed his opinion that the president walks on water.

"It's like a dream every single day," Messina said when asked about his White House job. "It's the single best thing."

The kids laughed at this apparent joke, but Messina was serious. "It is as cool as you think it is." He spoke of being offered the job ("The president-elect said, 'Hey, Messina, you want to go change the world?' ") and about interacting with the president ("He gave me this big hug and a fist bump"). He suggested that immigration reform, climate legislation and an end to "don't ask, don't tell" are all imminent (they aren't). He called Obama "the leader you all wanted him to be" and asserted that "I couldn't be any more proud of the guy."

He event tantalized the students with the possibility that, after a couple of grunt jobs, "you could be Jim Messina," a status that allows you "to have a cool car and work for a cool president."

Jones offered a realistic counterpoint to the smitten Messina. "Successes in life give you your confidence," he told the students, "but it's the setbacks that give you the character."

There were morsels of the bombast that got him in trouble last year (he called oil "the ancient blood of our ancestors") but far more moderation than Jones had shown before. When a young questioner said he was having "a lot of difficulty maintaining my hope level in the face of a lot of despair that's been coming out in the past 18 months," Jones said he got perspective by watching a documentary about Nelson Mandela. He counseled the students to turn off the television "chatter."

Another questioner said he "danced in the streets" when Jones got his job and "cried" when he lost it. "Do you feel any sense of frustration still?"

Jones took the long view. "If you were given the same opportunity I was given to go and serve for six months and it was 100 percent guaranteed that you would have the same rough exit that I had, do it," he said. "Do it. It's worth it."

Jones departed, and the MC asked whether the students "feel a little better about everything." In a sense, they should have: If Jones could survive his disgrace, surely Obama can survive his slump.

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