What Progressives Like Van Jones Want In Next Term

Van Jones has become a leading voice on the progressive left. That only happened after a short stint as the Obama administration's Green Jobs czar. Jones is now the co-founder of the policy group, Rebuild the Dream. He talks with host Michel Martin about what progressives should expect — and demand — in a second Obama term.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, around the country, many people are observing Veterans Day. We want to tell you about a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice doing a job that's so crucial on the frontlines, but which many people probably don't even think about. That conversation is later.

But first, with the long presidential campaign behind us, different constituencies are preparing for the next four years of an Obama White House. Tomorrow, we'll hear from a Tea Party leader about what they hope to see in the next four years, after what turned out to be a very tough election season for many of their candidates.

But, today, we are hearing from a leading voice in the progressive movement. Van Jones first came to national prominence as an advocate for so-called green jobs. He then joined the Obama administration as a special assistant to push for green jobs, but resigned after a brief tenure after he was accused by conservative groups of holding bizarre views about the 9/11 attacks. He has repeatedly said that those attacks were unfounded and were, in fact, false.

Since then he's emerged as a leading voice of political progressives. He cofounded the political policy group, Rebuild the Dream, authored a book of the same name and he's become a frequent commentator online and on television, and he is with us now.

Van Jones, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

VAN JONES: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: You know, in recent years, President Obama has come in for some tough criticism by some well-placed, well-known progressives like the professor, Cornel West, who recently called him a Rockefeller Republican in blackface. You haven't gone that far, but I wanted to ask you, in the wake of the election results, have you and other progressives felt - what? Relief, what?

JONES: Well, I've got a spring in my step and a gleam in my eye. I think most of us who supported the president against his opponents were very clear that the president was not perfect. There's no such thing as a perfect president, but we were not going to be able to make any progress if the kinds of tactics that were used against him were validated and vindicated.

He came under really, really false attacks. He was - you know, the birther issue, all those things - and we wanted to make sure that those kinds of politics were not rewarded.

That said, now, we have four more years and the progressives who won and helped to win this fight politically in November don't want to lose economically in December with the so-called fiscal showdown, etc. So there are now issues that we've got to push the White House on.

MARTIN: I do want to talk about what you hope to accomplish in the next four years, but I just have one more question about the politics of it. There's an argument to be made that grassroots progressives kind of hit their high point of political relevance during the Occupy movement in 2001 and yet one of the things that was noteworthy about that movement is that so many people connected with it refused to at least explicitly get involved in electoral politics. They became kind of better known for what they were against than what they were for.

And you've said repeatedly that the issue here is that there needs to be a movement to push the president to do the things that you want to do. What is the sense that this progressive movement can actually actualize and build upon this election win?

JONES: Well, you know, the progressive movement is bigger than just Occupy. Occupy is very important, but let's look at other organizations that haven't gotten the same level of media attention. The NAACP put a million extra black votes into play. Had the same number of African-Americans voted. For instance, in Ohio that voted in 2008 and 2012, Obama would have lost Ohio. We actually increased the African-American turnout in key swing states.

The African-American community now, I think, can say, listen, we were there for you politically. You need to be there for us now economically. Don't throw us under the bus with the fiscal cliff. What is the agenda now for African-Americans and for urban poverty from this administration since, in fact, it was an increase in African-American participation that led to the re-election of the president?

The progressive coalition is a big coalition. It's bigger than just Occupy Wall Street, as important as Occupy is, and many of the young people, frankly, who were involved in Occupy got involved with the Dream Defenders down in Florida and that produced a very large youth turnout, much bigger than expected, which helped to carry Florida.

So I do think the progressive movement comes out of this much stronger with more clout. We now need to be asking for the kind of respect and the kind of results that I think are appropriate when you help to beat back an unfair attack on a sitting president and have unmet needs.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify something. I said 2001. What I meant to say is 2011 when I talked about the Occupy movement...

JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in 2011.

JONES: Right.

MARTIN: Thank you for letting me clarify that. We're speaking with Van Jones. He's the co-founder of the progressive advocacy group, Rebuild the Dream. We're talking about what progressives hope the next four years will look like. So, let's talk about the substance of it. You've got - your organization has something called Contract for the American Dream. Talk a little bit about what's in that contract.

JONES: Yes. Well, for instance, now we are faced with this - what is now being called the fiscal cliff. As I think reporters began to look into this, they're going to come to the same conclusion that we have, which is this is - one word, cliff, is starting to drive people crazy and deliver kind of alarmism in our body politic. There is no fiscal cliff. There is, at best, a fiscal slope. The numbers that people are talking about in terms of damage to the economy don't happen immediately in January. If they happen at all, it's a year out.

We have time to come up with creative solutions here that do make sure that the wealthy begin to pay America back. That's important, but don't take a meat cleaver to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Don't throw the opportunity for investments in education and infrastructure overboard because we're now panicking ourselves. If we don't do everything tomorrow, we're going to go over some kind of fiscal cliff. There's a lot of alarmism right now. We think it's important that we actually look at the situation objectively, come forward with long-term and short-term smart policy solutions, but we didn't - this country didn't go broke helping Grandma too much with Medicare. We went broke because of the Bush tax cuts and the Bush wars.

If we want to fix the economy, the first thing we've got to do is repeal the Bush tax cuts and pull back on military expenditures to Clinton-level expenditures. That is the way forward, not throwing Grandma under the bus.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though. The Contract for the American Dream has 10 points on it. Only one of them, so far as I can see, speaks to anything about how this gets paid for. I mean, you talk about investing in America's infrastructure, create 21st century energy jobs, invest in public education, offer Medicare for all, make work pay. I only see one item on here, possibly two. Return to fairer tax rates, end the wars and invest at home that speaks to how this is paid for. I mean, don't you think it would strengthen the hand of progressives if they could be more explicit about exactly how this would work? And can you honestly say this isn't a crisis? I mean...

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...if these meat cleaver tax cuts go into effect, I mean, isn't everybody going to be badly affected by this?

JONES: Here's the thing. When you say a cliff, the idea there is there is nothing worse that could possibly happen than to go over a cliff. But that's not true. There are many, many worse outcomes than the cliff. For instance, if you had a 10 to one deal where you had on dollar of tax increase on the wealthy and then ten dollars of devastating cuts to programs the middle-class people need, that's actually worse than the so-called cliff.

The cliff language is designed to scare people into doing things that don't make sense. The cliff would be bad, but there are things that are worse. A bad deal here would be worse than no deal. No deal right now - there would be negative consequences, but there are forces in D.C. that want worse, and progressives have to stand up and say, look, you know, the programs that have been in place have been pillars of middle-class security. You know, Social Security is solvent. Medicare can be fixed with minor tweaks. Why are we going to devastate those programs?

Let's take the money from Halliburton and KBR and the big oil companies. Let's do it. Let's make sure the people who've done well in America do well by America and pay America back.

MARTIN: Let me just make sure I understand that. You are suggesting that no deal and allowing these...

JONES: There are worse deals.

MARTIN: ...automatic spending cuts to go into place and tax hikes to go into place is actually better than some alternatives?

JONES: There are worse deals. Yes. There are worse deals. The problem with the word, cliff - it's one syllable that just shuts your brain off. There are worse deals and there are actually worse deals being put on the table right now than the cliff. The cliff is bad. We think there are - we should not go over the cliff, but we shouldn't put in place an even worse set of cuts in order to avoid the cliff.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's continue to talk about this. We hope we'll hear from you again as these discussions go forward. Van Jones is the co-founder of the policy group, Rebuild the Dream, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Van Jones, thank you for joining us once again.

JONES: Thank you.

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