The resignation early Sunday of “green jobs” adviser Van Jones says as much about the Obama White House as it does about Jones – marking the latest sacrifice to the political gods after a long summer of compromises and surrenders highlighted the limits of White House power.
The departure – nominally the choice of a still-defiant Jones, who said he feared distracting from important business – confirmed Obama’s choice of pragmatism over confrontation and a belief that controversies sometimes are better solved by capitulation, a view that infuriates Obama’s allies on the left.
It confirmed that the real opposition party to Obama right now is the conservative grassroots that draws its energy from Fox News, talk radio and the Drudge Report, and often leaves Republican elected officials scrambling to catch up.
And it was a fresh reminder that the White House’s vetting process didn’t fall down only on high-profile nominees like Tom Daschle. It barely touched the lower reaches of the administration – a White House official conceded Sunday that Jones’ past statements weren’t as thoroughly scrubbed due to his relatively low rank. Jones’ selection also was propelled by powerful patrons, who included the first lady and the vice president.
In his statement, Jones was defiant. "On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me,” he said. “They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cast the move the same way.
“What Van Jones decided was that the agenda of this president was bigger than any one individual,” Gibbs said, agreeing with the show’s host, George Stephanopoulos that Obama “doesn’t endorse” Jones’s remarks on race and politics, his apparent flirtation with the “9/11 Truth” movement, and his advocacy for the convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The logic of the departure was clear: A hope of keeping the national conversation where Obama wanted it this week ahead of his health reform speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday.
“Between Cambridge cops; whether administration officials are or are not for the public option; right wing mobbing at town halls; and the back to school welcome contretemps, the White House has been forced to play defense and loose-ball control over [the summer],” said the former Clinton White House aide Chris Lehane, who noted that a “very important week” could have been consumed by “ a discussion related to an obscure staffer who no one has ever really heard of.”
Jones’s departure resonated sharply, however, with the other topic on Sunday’s television rotation: The public insurance option in the health care debate. There, too, the White House has responded to conservative opposition by pointing first to the outright distortions – and then running the other way.
To the outrage of the House Progressive Caucus, MoveOn, and other liberal voices, Gibbs and senior advisor David Axelrod said Obama this week will continue to advocate for a government-run plan to compete with private plans, but won’t insist on it, as some foes have cast the option, inaccurately, as equivalent to a government takeover of all health care delivery.
The Jones departure recalls another Democratic surrender: The indicated willingness to abandon a plan to fund voluntary end-of-life consultations after they were miscast by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as “death panels.”
"As we've seen before, succumbing to these types of propaganda attacks from the right wing only emboldens the aggressors. This controversy will go away and they will trump up another one tomorrow,” said David Brock, founder and chairman of Media Matters for America, a group that has taken on conservative commentators. “No good comes from appeasing a lunatic bully like Glenn Beck."
"If Jones left under pressure from the Obama administration then we are in for a very long and painful four years,” said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political science professor at Princeton University. “I would hate to think that Glenn Beck can simply shout down any member of the administration he chooses to target.”
They were referring to the Fox News host who has rocketed to a status as de facto leader of the opposition since joining the network from the relative obscurity of talk radio and CNN Headline News. Beck appears to have first targeted Jones coincidentally, because an advocacy group Jones helped found, Color of Change, was leading a campaign to drive advertisers away from Beck’s show.
But as soon as the ensuing controversy began to bleed over onto the websites of ABC News, POLITICO, and other quarters of the mainstream media, the administration appeared to stop defending Jones. After passing on a statement Thursday from Jones indicating that he would hold fast, Gibbs declined to indicate Friday that he had Obama’s confidence, and the resignation – apparently timed for maximum obscurity in the early hours of a holiday weekend Sunday – began to seem preordained.
The resignation, in turn, confirmed Beck’s stature as the administration’s most potent foe. Along with the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report’s Matt Drudge, Beck helped drive a summer of protest against health care reform that turned the legislation into a referendum on change and government.
They turned an anodyne presidential pep talk to students Tuesday into an illustration of the wide discomfort in parts of the country with Obama’s presidency. And they beat those drums for days before elected officials in Washington jumped on the bandwagon.
Beck, for one, seems unlikely to be satisfied by Jones’ resignation.
“Van Jones is the tip of the iceberg,” Beck said earlier this month. “If we understand [Obama] by who he surrounds himself with as HE told us, what does [Van Jones’s] 9/11 truther stuff tell us about [Obama’s] Middle East policy?” Beck wrote on Twitter after Jones’s resignation.
Some progressives said they saw racial overtones in Jones’ departure – which came as critics began to step up their scrutiny of Jones’ past words of support for Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther on death row whose murder conviction in the death of a police officer is a cause célèbre for some on the left.
"It struck me, why go after this guy? He is a minor player, he has no power, no budget, why take him? It's because he looks like Obama and he has all those same attributes of being well-educated and he’s an electrifying speaker with an elite education," said John Anner, a good friend of Jones and former chair of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization Jones founded in Oakland. "It seems to me that he is symbolic of what the Obama administration is and could be and that's inspiring for me, but for some people on the right, it's terrifying and threatening.”
The third lesson of the Jones flap is less unique to Obama’s White House, and to the moment. Jones was just an adviser to the Council on Environmental Quality – he was never officially referred to as a “green jobs czar,” as he’s sometimes been called – but he was also a celebrity of sorts. His work in California fusing civil rights, economics, and environmentalism put him at the head of powerful streams in the Democratic Party. He’d been the subject of a full-length profile in the New Yorker, and top officials sometimes touted him as a kind of trophy hire.
At a commencement address in the spring, first lady Michelle Obama held Jones up as an example to students of people who are doing interesting and innovative work.
"And then there's Van Jones, who recently joined the Obama administration, a special adviser to the president on green jobs. Van started out as a grassroots organizer and became an advocate and a creator of ‘green collar’ jobs –- jobs that are not only good for the environment, but also provide good wages and career advancement for both skilled and unskilled workers,” she said.
Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett echoed that praise to a cheering crowd at the Netroots Nation convention this summer. “Van Jones, we were so delighted to be able to recruit him into the White House, we have been watching him really...for as long as he's been active out in Oakland... and all of the creative ideas that he has... and now we have all of that energy and enthusiasm in the White House," Jarrett said.
And Vice President Joe Biden also had spotted Jones, whom he met at an administration-sponsored roundtable in February, Jones told POLITICO in an interview earlier this year.
"I just spoke from my heart and [Biden] looked me right in the eye...It wasn’t like he was taking notes or distracted...And he’s taken those ideas on board and that’s the kind of person he is, he is very down to earth..,,and I’ve since worked very closely with him and his staff to get a lot of those ideas implemented,” Jones said.
A White House official conceded that Jones “was not as thoroughly vetted as other administration officials,” though the official suggested it had more to do with the relatively low level of Jones’s job than with the power of his patrons.
There was little immediate talk of possible successors to Jones, largely due to the sense he would be difficult to replace in an advisory post designed specifically for him, due to his past work in promoting "green jobs." His departure will likely leave the sorest feelings among Obama’s supporters on the left. Jones has deep ties to the current liberal elite: He was a top aide to Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington’s 2003 campaign for governor of California, and Sunday won praise from, among others, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
“I think it’s a loss for the country,” Dean said.