Green Jobs Guru Back To Energize Progressive Base?

Activist Van Jones served as special adviser to President Obama on green jobs. He resigned in 2009 after media reports questioned his beliefs about the 9/11 attacks. Now, Jones is back with a new book, Rebuild the Dream, outlining his vision for the progressive movement. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we're going to dip our hands into the cookie jar. We'll look at how a sweet treat is fueling a rivalry between Washington, D.C. and its urban neighbor to the north, Baltimore. We'll tell you more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, it was Earth Day this weekend and maybe you were one of the Americans who spent time planting trees or clearing litter from a local park or river. But our next guest has been a strong voice for putting green issues at the top of our national agenda every day. After years as a human rights and environmental activist, Van Jones became a national figure as a special advisor to President Obama for green jobs. He resigned in 2009 after a number of conservative media figures connected him to a petition that questioned who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Since then, Van Jones has returned to activism. He serves on the board of the National Resources Defense Council. He's a visiting fellow in collaborative economics at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, and he's a leading supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement and other progressive causes.

His new book, "Rebuild the Dream," though, offers a pointed critique of the Obama administration but also a vision for the future of the progressive movement. And Van Jones joins us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.

VAN JONES: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: I mean, I think we should get the pain point out up front. You resigned in 2009 after it was reported that you signed a petition questioning who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Did you sign that petition?

JONES: Never signed it, never saw it. And the 9/11 Truth Organization itself came out and said they didn't have a signature for me. But, you know, that's politics.

MARTIN: How do you feel about that now, the fact that this was a made-up story. I mean, you lost your job over a made-up story. How do you feel about your departure?

JONES: Well, you know, it was two and a half years ago, so I've had a lot of time to digest it and to move forward. You know, a lot of people had a bad year in 2008, 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: And so, I wasn't alone. And what I focus now is, you know, I had a job before I went to the White House, I had a job in the White House, I have a job today. A lot of Americans can't say that. And so, I'm focused and this book is focused, on how it is that we can get the American dream, whatever's left of it, back on track.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. As we mentioned, Earth Day was Sunday, and I think a lot of people see that event as raising our consciousness about the environment but not necessarily about the economic opportunities associated with the environment. And in the book you tell an interesting story which, frankly, I had never heard before about how your father kind of connected the dots for you about the importance of economic growth, about the importance of economic opportunity. You know, how do you connect the dots about the importance of environmentalism and economic growth for most Americans?

JONES: One of the things that we don't think about enough is everything that is good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up. Community gardens don't tend themselves. Wind turbines don't manufacture themselves. We clearly have a big ecological crisis on our hands. The polls just came out showing that Americans are saying this wacky weather is proof to them, that - and they're in the majority now that climate change is real and we've got to do something.

So the ecological crisis has not gone away from daily life just because it's not in the newspapers every day. But also we've got the economic crisis. Well, there is the opportunity to connect the people who most need work, the people who are unemployed, with the work that most needs to be done, repowering America in a clean way.

I was advising the White House on that a couple of years ago. I touch on it in the book. I also talk about other things we can do to put Americans back to work. You know, it used to be the case that the path out of poverty into the middle class was tough but it was clear. You go to college, you get a job, you buy a home, you're safe.

Now that former pathway out of poverty to middle class has become a trap door from the middle class into poverty. Kids are graduating from college with massive debt, no jobs. The public sector jobs that people like my dad used to get out of poverty, becoming a school teacher, et cetera, those jobs are under fire.

And then a quarter of all our homes are underwater. You're not building wealth with your home; you're losing wealth with your home. So the pathways out of poverty into the middle class have now become in all too many cases trap doors from the middle class into poverty. And we've got to be able to talk about that honestly as a country and actually begin to change that reality for Americans.

MARTIN: Why do you think that that message faced such resistance in your time at the White House?

JONES: I think that there are vested interests who would feel somewhat threatened if we were to begin to move away from fossil fuels, stop burning coal at the same rate, stop burning oil, and begin to use other technologies. Short-term, there are some winners and some losers there.

But I think, you know, honestly, you know, I worked for the president and it's a contact sport, politics. And so, if you can take something - you know, I'm as now conservative today, I certainly did when I was in my 20s and I was on the left side of Pluto running around the Bay Area. So, if you can take some of those statements from, you know, a long time ago, make up some stuff and come up with a caricature, if it hurts the president there are people who will do that.

But I've been actually very surprised. You know, I taught at Princeton last year. I've been surprised at the receptivity across the board from people for actual constructive ideas which are in the book.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with former Obama administration adviser and activist Van Jones. We're talking about his service in the White House and also his new book, "Rebuild the Dream." You do outline in the book what you view as the Obama administration's accomplishments. But you are also very clear about what you see as their failures.

JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: There's a chapter titled, "From Hope to Heartbreak," and there are a lot of people on the left who are very disappointed in this administration. Where do you feel that they went wrong?

JONES: I think the White House misunderstood the grassroots movements that elected Obama. I think they thought that they were just people you could put in a jar, put in the refrigerator, take them out when you wanted to, microwave them up, use them, put them back in. Movements don't work that way. And so I think that there was a sense of disaffection there.

But I also think that grassroots movements didn't really understand the White House, what it can do, what it can't do. And there was - I think it was a false view that Obama was supposed to be leading our movement for change.

Well, you know, LBJ, head of state, did not lead the civil rights movement. He was head of state. He was responsive to the civil rights movement, but you had to have a movement in the streets of people to make the country respond to the needs. Under George Bush, we had a big movement for peace but you had the wrong president. With Obama, you've got arguably the right president but the wrong movement was in the streets for most of the time - that was the Tea Party. We've not yet had the right president and the right movement at the same time. That's what I'm pushing for.

MARTIN: It sounds to me like you're saying that too many people on the left have magical thinking, that they expected the president to kind of be like their daddy and just fix it all.

JONES: That's a sharper statement than I would make but there's something in that direction we've got to be concerned about. And so, I do think that it's like a scissors. You've got to have the right leadership on the inside and the right leadership on the outside. And I think that - I mean, I put myself in the indictment. There are a lot of people who were progressive and they kept marching and they kept doing what they were doing. Well, a lot of us did not march and work at the same level.

MARTIN: Let's just be more specific. What specifically do you think people on the left should have done to support this president in achieving the goals that they would like, which they think are important? What specifically? Name me one thing they should have done.

JONES: Sure. Sure. Ironically, challenging the White House more on things like single payer.

MARTIN: Single-payer health insurance.

JONES: Exactly. Because then the public option would've looked like what it was - a moderate compromise. But when we got quiet on single payer, I don't understand why you have private insurance companies. Insurance is what you get if you don't know what's going to happen. Maybe there's going to be a flood. Maybe it won't. I'll get flood insurance. We all are going to see the doctor at some point, even if it's just to declare us dead.

And so, why is that not just a single payer like around the world system? We got very quiet on that. Then suddenly public option looks like the radical option and then we lost that too. Then we wind up with this individual mandate, which is the Republican idea, and then they abandon that. And now the Republicans become the freeloader caucus and say, oh, we don't even - you don't have to buy your own insurance. And we wind up chasing the bunny, you know, farther and farther to the right.

MARTIN: So it sounds to me like you're agreeing with those who would argue that both the Tea Party Movement and the Republican leadership successfully have moved the center of gravity to the right.

JONES: Right.

MARTIN: It sounds to me like you're saying they outmaneuvered...

JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the administration and the left in the messaging.

JONES: I agree.

MARTIN: So tell me what the Obama administration did wrong.

JONES: We should have been stronger on our values. And then I think the president missed other opportunities. For instance, like with the stimulus package. A third of the stimulus package was tax cuts. You hear of Bush tax cuts all the time. You never hear of Obama tax cuts, but he cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. Never took credit. Another third of the stimulus - they talked about jobs created or saved. They never talk about the jobs they saved. Cops, firefighters, teachers.

MARTIN: Why not?

JONES: Because I think that they bought into this idea that this was going to be some kind of job creating package and got locked into that argument and only a third of the stimulus was even about jobs. Another third was tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans. The other third was keeping cops on the beat.

When you don't claim your political victories and let the other side define the stimulus for you as a failed jobs package and then you try to argue about how many jobs you created, that is a form of political malpractice in some ways.

MARTIN: Is that incompetence or is that arrogance?

JONES: I don't...

MARTIN: I think people on the right have accused the administration, the president in particular, but the administration more broadly, of being arrogant, a feeling that they don't have to explain themselves because they just assume that they're right. I mean, so which is it? Incompetence or arrogance?

JONES: Well, I think it's learning. So, there's a learning curve factor there where you think, if you said it once, people heard you and it takes you a while to realize the message is not working.

I give the grassroots movement - fine, we need to learn how to function better. And when we walk with this White House, when we walk far ahead of it, when we stand beside it and when we try to push it, I also give the administration the opportunity to learn.

But what I will say is this. We've got to be clear that this year there are two fights and not one. We could win politically in November. But if we don't have an independent movement that is talking about jobs and economic opportunity for people all year long, you could lose in December with a bad budget. Good election in November, bad budget in December is still a sad 2013.

MARTIN: You're not a political pundit, you know, per se. But as we head toward the November elections, do you think the president's going to win?

JONES: I think he's going to win. I think it's going to be tough and close. But I think the race is going to be a nasty race. It'll be a fear election. We'll be scared of the Tea Party. The Tea Party will be scared of socialism. It's going to be nasty and depressing. We've got to have an independent movement that keeps the main thing the main thing and the main thing is that American working families need an opportunity to thrive again and we're not going to get that just by giving tax cuts to rich folks.

MARTIN: Well, as we head toward the election, as we mentioned, you are not the only person of the left or progressive - as you prefer - who has expressed disappointment with the administration for a number of reasons. What does the president have to do to get you and other progressives excited?

JONES: I am excited. I mean, look, I think most Democrats, independents, progressives are what I call post-hope. We like this president. We don't want a Tea Party president, but we know that just re-electing the president is not enough. We want to re-elect him, but we also want to reenergize an independent movement that can get the best out of his next term.

MARTIN: Van Jones is an activist and author. His new book is "Rebuild the Dream." He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Van Jones, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JONES: Thanks for the opportunity.

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