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Van Jones: The Face of Green Jobs
Years before it was announced that Van Jones, the premier green-jobs advocate in the country, was headed to the White House, it was clear that Van Jones was headed to the White House. Thomas Friedman devoted an entire 2007 column to Jones, writing of his lofty goals, "I would not underestimate him." Jones muscled his way through Congress to get a Green Jobs Act passed in 2007 and then lavished praise on Nancy Pelosi and now-Labor Secretary, then-Rep. Hilda Solis. Pelosi returned the favor with a rave book blurb for Jones' 2008 best-seller The Green Collar Economy, writing that Jones possessed "sparkling intelligence, powerful vision, and deep empathy." When he wasn't running his fix-poverty, fix-the-planet nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., he was seeding Obama's transition team with ideas for an all-encompassing environmental/labor/energy/
So despite originally saying he had no interest in moving to Washington, Jones is now part of the executive branch. Officially, he's the "special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation," a clunky title unbefitting of a man so who's especially talented at turning a phrase. Basically, he's Obama's green-jobs guy. But he's the green-jobs guy who used to be the green-jobs advocate. When I spent the day with him in Washington last week, Jones told me he sees the transition as one of "inspiration to implementation." It's a slogan that summarizes not just Jones' challenge but the whole administration's. The trouble for both: Inspiration is the easy part.
Jones is the switchboard operator for Obama's grand vision of the American economy; connecting the phone lines between all the federal agencies invested in a green economy. The $787 billion stimulus Congress authorized in February had at least $30 billion of green-jobs funding attached to it. It's Jones' responsibility to work within all the government agencies to make sure it gets doled out appropriately. Obama wants a cap-and-trade policy that will eventually force American industry to develop new green technologies that will lead to new green jobs. It's Jones' task to convince the American people that this is a good idea. The administration will have to get employees of dirty-energy companies—companies Jones calls the "pro-polluter status quo"—to believe they'll have jobs in a green economy, too. It's for Jones to sculpt that messaging operation. Jones told me the one thing he's learned in the four weeks he's been in Washington is that "power in D.C. is an illusion. Nobody in D.C. has as much power as they want—not even the president." Maybe Jones should lend Obama some of his.
Van Jones loves Barack Obama. As far back as 2004, he was calling Obama a "hero." These days, it's rare for Jones to go 20 minutes without mentioning his boss's brilliance. Jones compared the president to Michael Jordan—twice. (Obama is just going to keep scoring until somebody makes him stop.) Jones couldn't stop raving about the "extraordinary" speech Obama gave about the economy at Georgetown last week; he was "so proud of him" for giving it. His 4-and-a-half-year-old son calls the president "Baracko" and for a long time thought "Barack Obama Joe Biden" was the name of one person. Jones tells that last anecdote with an especially gleeful tone—it combines his real family with his new one.
Jones' crush on Obama is partly authentic and partly occupational. He has become the administration's chief spokesperson for all things green-economy. It's a mark of the strange nature of Jones' job that he has to be a switchboard operator who talks as much as he listens. While I was with him, the press person for the Council on Environmental Quality—the executive committee for which Jones works—repeatedly talked with Jones about the media hits coming up. There was loose chatter about Anderson Cooper, Larry King, and other spots rumored for the weekend. CNN was thinking of following him to a speaking gig in California. I accompanied him to a green-jobs-are-the-future talk he gave to business journalists. Directly afterward, he took a cab to the airport to go to Massachusetts, where he did the same thing for a bunch of college students. His job has become an institutionalized, more regimented, version of what he was already doing outside the administration: speaking Obama's praises. It's one that Jones says takes up only 15 percent of the time, but it appeared to be more like 50 percent.
This spokesperson role is largely why the administration brought him into the fold in the first place. It had two options: 1) let Jones compliment the policies from the outside, lending it credibility within the activist community, or 2) bring Jones inside and give him the authority to evangelize to a far larger audience—all of America—since Obama would probably already have grass-roots support. Option 2 it was.
And so started Jones' transformation from advocate to public servant. It's not an entirely smooth one; Jones and Obama don't agree on everything. Yes, Obama's environmental, energy, economic, and labor policies have been influenced by Jones and other progressives' work. But in the past, Jones has been a loud supporter of green jobs because they have the chance to help raise people of color out of poverty. In his book, he warns of an "eco-apartheid": a situation in which people of color are left behind as green jobs and green benefits all go to the privileged. But in official Washington, rhetoric about the middle class is always preferable to talking about poor people. In the day I spent with Jones, I heard him mention the disadvantaged only twice. I asked him why he wasn't speaking more about using green jobs for the poor. He offered a knowing smile and said, "We need an economy first."
Otherwise, the friction comes from which energy sources qualify as green. Obama is more supportive of clean coal and ethanol than Jones. (Jones on clean coal: "We could power the country with clean coal, or we could have unicorns pull our cars for us." Jones on ethanol: "One hundred percent against corn-based ethanol. Corn should be food and not fuel.") It's a tension that is acknowledged within the government. When discussing the administration's party line on cap-and-trade, Jones told an advocacy group all the usual talking points but left out a willingness to work with clean-coal and ethanol producers. The communications strategist chimed in saying that she knows it's not Jones' favorite part of the message, but advocacy groups can also say that the government believes in having a "diverse portfolio" of publically funded green energy and green jobs. Jones simply smiled.
Later, when I asked him how he rectifies his own beliefs with the party line, he said that when he's talking about green jobs these days, he has one overriding thought: "What would Barack Obama say?" Jones may still be learning Washington, but he already knows how to be on message. (So much so that while I was with him, he started a speech off with the strained declaration that there was no economic stimulus in this country. There was only the American Economic and Reinvestment Act. Tomatoes, tom-ah-toes. Just don't call the whole thing off.) He told me that the definitions of what was and wasn't a green job were still being hashed out, and would likely be defined not just by the feds but by state and local governments as well, since they'll have their own green-job money to spend. It was an artful dodge that I could imagine Obama performing. On-message yet again.
By buying into the administration's rhetoric, Jones runs the risk of sounding like a talking head. But he manages to avoid that ignominy by exhibiting a rare quality in Washington: He's a storyteller. To Jones, there's an analogy, allusion, or alliteration awaiting every complex explanation of geothermal energy and photovoltaic cells. He has an honest sense of humor—no sarcasm and no biting insults—that puts people at ease with the scary reality that the economy-as-we-know-it is going to have to change. During a speech about why we must start making polluters pay for carbon emissions—a key piece of the president's cap-and-trade agenda—he told a story of a man being charged a fine for throwing a gum wrapper on the sidewalk. If we're doing it for crap, we should be doing it for carbon. When he puts it that way, it makes a surprising amount of sense.