The Washington Post

Obama’s rise confused the left: Q&A with ex-White House official Van Jones

Van Jones (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Van Jones, who spent six months as the “green jobs czar” in the Obama White House until he resigned amid a flurry of attacks from conservatives, is out with a new book. “Rebuild the Dream” looks back at how, in Jones’s view, the liberal movement grew passive under President Obama and paved the way for the rise of the tea party.

The book also reveals some details of Jones’s time in the White House, and lays out his vision for restoring the American dream (including some tough talk for the banks).

   The Post recently chatted with Jones about his thoughts on the state of American liberal politics.

  TWP: In your book, you say the White House should have done more to sell the health-care bill, like holding rallies or concerts. Why didn’t that happen?

Jones: It’s hard to know. I wasn’t on that side of the White House. I do think there was a mistaken view that if the Democrats could just get their act together inside the Beltway that that would be enough. We forgot that there are two centers of power to make change. One is the inside game, and the other is the outside game.

You say the grass-roots left stood down, while the tea party rose up. How could that happen when a community organizer is the president?

The head of state is not a community organizer. That’s not in his job description. I think people got very confused. Barack Obama talked like, looked like and functioned like a social movement leader during the campaign. But once he becomes head of state in our system, the social movement role is usually held by outsiders. LBJ, for instance, did not lead the civil rights movement, he responded favorably to it. We somehow expected President Obama to be both the head of state and the leader of a social movement. And it just led to wholesale confusion.

 Was that due to actions by activists or the White House?

Both the outsiders and the insiders have to take responsibility. I’m certainly a case study of a grass-roots activist who wanted to be a part of that historic moment in Washington, D.C. And a lot of the progressive left went from focusing on activism to focusing on access. We went from being the kind of movement that marches on Washington to being the kind of movement that awaited orders from Washington. We surrendered our biggest card, which is peaceful protests, so the tea party monopolized peaceful protest. We stood down and they stood up.

Was there a policy consequence to the left’s lack of action?

I think so. Perhaps if the advocates of single-payer health care had found a way to be louder and had been allowed more space by the D.C. insiders to be louder, the public option would have looked more like the moderate compromise that it was. Instead, since progressive voices were muted, the public option began to look unacceptably progressive. Now, I wonder if having a public option would have made the health-care bill more palatable to the Supreme Court, since taxpayers being made to pay for public roads and public schools and other public benefits is well established.

 How should the left view President Obama’s reelection campaign?

It’s absolutely essential that we reelect Obama. It’s just not sufficient. We have to reelect the president and we have to reenergize our movement. 

What are you working on now? You write about focusing on finding ways to help underwater homeowners and people saddled with student loan debt.

The book is mostly about what we should do next. I think we’ve got to focus on bread-and-butter issues and not just talk about them. It used to be that the way you got out of poverty and into the middle class was by going to college and buying a house. Now we live in a world where underwater mortgages and excessive college debt are dragging people out of the middle class into poverty. This is nuts.


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