Transcript: Live Chat with Van Jones and Ari Berman on the State of the Obama Coalition in 2012
On June 1, 2012, The Nation hosted a live chat with Rebuild the Dream co-founder and president Van Jones and reporter Ari Berman on grassroots activism and the 2012 election. During the hour-long chat, Jones and Berman answered reader questions on topics such as student loans, the mortgage crisis and the effect of Super PAC money on on-the-ground organizing. Below you’ll find an edited transcript of the chat. You can also read a CoveritLive replay here.
Sarah Arnold: Hi, everyone. This is Sarah, your moderator. Welcome to our chat with reporter Ari Berman and Rebuild the Dream president and co-founder Van Jones.
Van Jones: Hello!
Ari Berman: Hello! Thanks for having us. I'm Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation and author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
Sarah Arnold: Welcome both of you! Thanks for joining us. To start, you’ve both written a great deal on the subject of Obama and grassroots activists. Could you talk a bit about your most recent projects?
Van Jones: I am the author of the New York Times bestseller, Rebuild The Dream. I am the president and co-founder of RebuildTheDream.com. We are mainly fighting to ease the pain of homeowners whose mortgages are underwater and students set to graduate with tons of debt and little access to jobs.
Ari Berman: Van, congrats on your book being a bestseller!
Van Jones: Thanks, bro.
Ari Berman: My book recently came out in paperback, with a new afterword focused on the 2012 election. Right now I'm starting work on a story about the Obama campaign's grassroots organizing efforts in 2012 and whether they'll be successful against the Romney campaign & Super PAC onslaught from the GOP
Van Jones: It is a great book!
We both are trying to tell the hidden history of people's movements and social movements in the Obama era, and in the time leading up to it.
Ari Berman: Thanks. Van, let's get right to it—how can Obama get re-elected if the jobs situation remains dire? What should his message be?
Van Jones: That we may have hit our head on a ceiling at first, but things are beginning to get better. Romney would tear the floor out from under the American people. That the Ryan budget is a wrecking ball for everything that made America great in the last century. I don't think even Democrats understand how extreme and crazy even the GOP "moderates" have become.
Ari Berman: Won't it be difficult for Obama to argue that things are beginning to get better if the jobs numbers are underwhelming and unemployment is rising? Seems to me his best chance is to run against the GOP Congress, which is blocking any action on job creation, and to tie Romney to them.
Van Jones: Exactly! He has to point out how much worse things will be under the GOP. Romney is a job destroyer, not a job creator. That was his record in both the private sector AND the public sector.
Ari Berman: Do you think that message is getting across right now?
Van Jones: Not yet. But it is early. This will be a fear election, not a hope election, on both sides. They are afraid of a big government takeover of the entire economy—which is a false, hyped-up, ridiculous fear. We are afraid of a big corporate takeover of the economy—which is a valid fear. But it will be fear on both sides.
Ari Berman: What can the Obama campaign or progressive voices do about Democrats who are undermining that message by defending Romney on Bain? Bill Clinton just did this yesterday.
Van Jones: Ah, Bain!
Speak out. We need to have more voices of the victims of Romney Economics speaking out. It is not just a question of progressive Democrats versus blue-dogs. It is a question of TV personalities and climbers, versus real victims of Bain. The victims need the microphone more often.
Ari Berman: Let's switch gears a little. How can grassroots organizing combat the onslaught of Super PAC money we're seeing in this election? Howard Dean told me not long ago "Super PACs have made a grassroots campaign less effective.” Do you think that's true?
Van Jones: We will see. Let me say something about this.
Ari Berman: Go ahead
Van Jones: It is true that the tidal wave of corporate cash is undermining the voice of the people. You can see this in Wisconsin. There is still hope for a win there, evicting Walker, but it is going to be a much tougher fight than it should have been. That tsunami of cash will soon be flooding the swing states, but the low-cost ways of connecting people are more powerful and more ubiquitous than ever.
If everyone goes full out, and really mobilizes everyone she knows, we will win. We will win if we do EVERYTHING, as if our lives depended upon it. We have Facebook friends and twitter followers and all kinds of technology. I do believe that the social capital and intellectual capital can trump the financial capital. At the end of the day, it is one PERSON/one vote, not one DOLLAR/one vote. We should not forget that.
Ari Berman: Do new grassroots strategies need to be developed in order to counteract Super PAC money? Will the door-to-door organizing of '08 work in 2012?
Van Jones: Door -to-door will be important. But touch strategies will count most, the ones that empower people to move the people they already know. Progressives have TREMENDOUS social capital. The question is: will we take the GOP/Tea Party threat seriously enough to counter it. *High touch* strategies will count more.
Ari Berman: Let's get to one more topic before we open it up to the public: you've been writing and speaking a lot about Occupy Wall Street. How can we grow the 99 percent movement, make it a central dynamic in 2012, and how do you respond to criticism that you're co-opting the message of OWS?
Van Jones: The themes of the protests of 2011—from Wisconsin to Wall Street—were deeply resonant with the American people. With people around the world, really. There were probably 200,000 "occupiers"—the people who risked their safety to sleep out doors, who braved the cold and the pepper spray. The world owes them a debt. At the same time, about 33 percent of Americans agreed with the critique they elevated—that income inequality is a threat, that corporate cash has too much influence in DC, that Wall Street is out of control. That is 100 MILLION people.
Nobody can claim exclusive rights to speak for 100 MILLION Americans, and the vast majority of people I know in OWS are happy that so many other leaders and organizations have stepped up and stepped in to expand the movement of the 99 percent.
Ari Berman: Just 33 percent? Polls showed sizable majorities agreed with the core OWS message, if not necessarily the movement itself
Van Jones: That is the hard number of people who said they "strongly agree" with all the issues, taken together, when raised in association with the protests last year. So even after the media smeared OWS and things cooled down, you had a majority agreeing with the concerns, and one-third of America STRONGLY agreeing.
My point is that no one group can, should or could say they speak for the entire 100 MILLION, let alone the majority of Americans who agree in some way, let alone the 99 percent who are suffering. So all leaders need to step up. Nobody can speak for OWS, except those who did the occupying. But everyone needs to stand up to defend the 99% of Americans who are suffering and insist that the economy work for the 100%. That is everyone's job. The people who should be criticized are those who stayed on the sidelines, not those who jumped into the fight. :- )
Ari Berman: It seems like OWS and allies were successful in getting the lexicon of 99 percent into the political dialogue and somewhat successful in shifting the political debate from austerity to jobs, although I do worry that we're hearing a lot more discussion of debt and austerity now than we were a few months ago.
Sarah Arnold: Thanks to both of you. We're going to bring in reader questions now. We'll start with one from reader Ryan, about student loans. Van, perhaps you can address this one:
Ryan: Do you feel the conversations regarding student loans and college debt have contributed to changes in student civic engagement and grassroots involvement? If so, what role does grassroots organization play in increasing voter turnout for college-aged and recently graduated students?
Van Jones: The student debt issue is MAJOR. The fight to prevent the interest rates on the Stafford loans from doubling to 6.8% is a huge deal.
We are the only country in the world making it harder for our young people to go to college. My group, RebuildTheDream.com, was one of the first to ring the alarm on this fight. July 1 is still looming as the deadline on the horizon. We can win it, but it will be a war until the very end.
Ari Berman: I think there needs to be a renewed focus on motivating young people to vote in the election and the Obama camp needs to do a better job about contrasting his agenda for young people versus Romney’s. They've begun to do this, but there needs to be more, both in terms of discussion and policy fights.
Van Jones: I do think more youth need to fight for stuff like this, and make the candidates answerable to them.
Ari Berman: Yeah, a lot of young Obama supporters thought their work was done after the '08 election, when it was in fact only just beginning.
Van Jones: Bird-dogging federal candidates in cap-and-gown, dragging a ball and chain of debt. That is one of the things young people could do. It would get cameras and media attention.
Sarah Arnold: Here's a comment/question from Reid Friedson that you both can address:
Reid Friedson: I registered over 400 voters in Florida for Obama in '08. I may be a big part of why this was the only state he won in the "Deep South." Yet, Obama seems to have left behind the liberals, progressives, and environmentalists. No one from his staff has ever thanked me and they just keep asking for more money. Why do we not see "Green New Deal" jobs? Where did the 3/4 of a trillion dollars go? Has Obama lost his way or will his second term be more activist on the left?
Van Jones: Thanks for registering all those voters!
Obama will be as progressive in the next term as the progressives ourselves are activated, loud and insistent.
Ari Berman: Good comment Reid. I'm surprised no one from the campaign has reached out to you. I think they've spend too much time asking people for money and not enough time involving them in how the country should be run. As to green jobs, Van can answer that.
Van Jones: We started down the road of a Green New Deal. The president put $80 billion into clean and green solutions, as a part of the "stimulus" package. Those investments have paid off: we have 3.1 million green jobs in America, despite the GOP blocking our clean energy legislation (cap-and-trade) and China flooding the world with artificially cheap solar. It is not enough, though.
Ari Berman: A lot of the major progressive groups cut the president too much slack after he was elected and the White House actively thwarted progressive pressure. That dynamic has changed somewhat—now many progressive organizations know they need to put pressure on Obama, even if the White House doesn't like it.
Van Jones: We need to renew the fight for a clean energy future, but that will come from the grassroots first. The fight to defend the tax credits for our wind and solar companies would be a good place to start. Americans who have those jobs right now could lose them, if we don't keep the existing tax credits in place.
Ari Berman: I also think people need to focus less on Obama or the White House per se and more on Congress and those in the echo chamber who are blocking progress on these type of policies
Van Jones: I agree with Ari on that one, especially.
I am all for pushing Obama, too, but the conventional wisdom is already moving to the wrong place—leave the tax breaks for the mega-rich in place, impose harsh cuts and don't touch the big military contractors like Halliburton.
Sarah Arnold: Here's a comment from Nancy Bishop on the recent jobs report. Ari and Van, what should Obama do/say between now and the election on that front?
Nancy Bishop: Today's jobs report was very scary. I think we have to see significant changes in jobs numbers and decline in unemployment by late October. All the slogans and arguments (even though I agree with them) won't help without changes in those stats.
Sarah Arnold: Here's reader Kate also on jobs:
Kate: Isn't it important for us to start pointing out that the "job creators" have had the biggest tax breaks in history and the jobs are not being created?
Van Jones: Amen, Kate!
That is key to unmasking Romney, as well. His job creation record in Massachusetts is laughable.
Ari Berman: Van might have a different perspective on this, but there's not much Obama can do on jobs if Congress is blocking his policies under them but continue to build public support for his ideas. The Fed is being cautious, although we could see another round of quantitative easing if things get worse. I basically think Obama needs to say: my policies would make the economy better and Romney's would make it worse and then to really run against the people that are blocking change. The Obama campaign's only hope of winning if the economy grows slowly or contracts is to tear Romney apart. That's the sad truth. It's the strategy Bush used against Kerry in 2004.
Van Jones: I think running against the obstruction is the right way to go. "Give me a Congress that will put your needs first."
Ari Berman: Yeah, Truman '48 is a good model for him.
Van Jones: As I said, the last election was a hope-fueled election. This will be a fear-based election—on both sides.
Sarah Arnold: To go in another direction, here's a comment from reader Ayesha D. on the mortgage crisis. Van, I know Rebuild the Dream has done work on that front.
Ayesha D.: How does your fight in trying to help those with underwater mortgages mesh with the forced settlement with the Obama Administration and the Mortgage industry? They don't seem congruous. The States can use this money in any way they please, and they are. In Baltimore, where I live, they're using the money to demolish 700 homes. In other states they're using the money to fill budget short falls. That settlement seems to benefit the government and the mortgage industry instead of the people that need it most.
Van Jones: The settlement is at best a very small step in the right direction. One-third of American homes are underwater. The banks did $700 billion worth of damage to the economy, with their robosigning and other shenanigans. A $25 billion settlement is just a down payment. We need to fight for real redress.
For instance, Fannie and Freddie should reevaluate the worth of these homes and write down the principal—and thereby stop overcharging America's homeowners.
Also, some bankers should go to jail. I worry that the Department of Justice is just not being aggressive enough here. Lastly, Congress should pass legislation to give homeowners the tools to at least cut the interest rates on their homes.
Sarah Arnold: Thanks, Van. Here's a question from reader Ari G. that you both can address:
Ari G: Is it appropriate to criticize Obama's foreign policy record in an election year?
Van Jones: It certainly is, Ari G.
Ari Berman: Hello to a fellow Ari. Of course it's appropriate to criticize Obama's foreign policy record if you have problems with it. I also think it's important to look at what Romney would do - I just wrote a big piece for The Nation about this.
Van Jones: People worry that any concerns expressed from the left will only hurt the President, but those concerns might move the President to a better position—not just from a policy point of view, or a moral point of view, but even from a "good political stance" point of view.
The DC echo chamber makes people—even leaders like Obama—reluctant to speak out boldly for common sense solutions. Thunder on the left expands the ideological playing field, and sometimes emboldens a Democratic President to take positions that are not popular in DC, but that are popular with the people. We should never surrender our right to speak out.
Sarah Arnold: We have a question here from Richard Kim, editor of TheNation.com:
Richard Kim: Hi Van, Hi Ari! It's Richard, editor of TheNation.com. This conversation has been really great so thanks for doing it. Now I have a question for both of you on the politics of fear: We saw recently plans by right-wing operatives to revive the issue of Reverend Wright against Obama, and just generally to pursue the failed strategy of 2008 of inflaming racial anxiety. It didn't work then. But do you worry that in an economic crisis, these kinds of attacks, backed by HUGE money, will have more traction?
Van Jones: I do worry about that, but even people whom we assume to be a part of the racial/racist right are not super happy about some of this stuff.
Ari Berman: I don't think the Wright attack per se will have more traction, because people who care about that are already going to vote against Obama, but I think the politics of fear in general is very potent at times of economic distress.
Van Jones: The Tea Party crowd is not monolithically in favor of these kinds of attacks.
Ari Berman: Yeah, we saw major pushback against what was reported in the New York Times even from many Republicans. I don't think Romney wants to go there
Van Jones: I think racial fire alarms make even the right-wing base uncomfortable. Look for racial "dog whistles" like "Obama Is Not Working." That Romney slogan—which his camp already uses—strikes a lot of people as a kind of code for "lazy, incompetent, affirmative action baby."
Ari Berman: dog whistles > fire alarms
Richard Kim: Van—that's certainly true that many conservatives are not happy. But this year, post-Citizen's United, you can have one radical right billionaire (see Sheldon Adelson) drop tons of cash on any number of hateful attack ads. Of course—that might hurt Romney!
Ari Berman: Adelson's Super PAC money didn't win Gingrich the election.
Sarah Arnold: Here's a comment from reader Jeff Koopersmith on Richard's question:
Jeff Koopersmith: We haven't seen anything yet from the GOP—they are capable of anything today. Just monitoring Fox News will give you an indication of what's coming. It's time to help the British investigation of Murdoch et al—focusing on Roger Ailes, he is the boiler room chief.
Van Jones: In my experience, FOX News is fair and balanced so I don't see the need to worry about them. Fine, upstanding people, all around.
Ari Berman: Haha, assume that is a joke
Van Jones: You have not seen the "fair and balanced" way they cover me? The height of journalistic integrity!! : )
Sarah Arnold: Ha! On that note, let's pivot a bit. Here's a question from a reader on Obama's online strategy. Ari, can you address this one?
EMS: How is President Obama doing on the web and with social media, in comparison with Mitt Romney? Are his campaign efforts in that arena making much of difference when it comes to engaging young voters?
Ari Berman: I think the Republicans have started to catch up a bit when it comes to social media. The level of technological sophistication has increased a great deal since 2008. But there needs to be a message behind the technology that appeals to people, especially young voters. As I mentioned earlier, I think the Obama campaign has spent too much time asking people for money and not enough time to get them involved. That's starting to change as we get closer to election day, but it's important to treat people as organizers, not ATMs
Van Jones: As Ari composes his response, I want to say—as I have said so often—I do not speak for OWS, nor have I ever claimed to. I do speak UP for Occupy, when they come under attack. I admire them and their courage, very much. But I have my own organization, which is pursuing a different strategy. I talk about my assessment of the entire progressive movement, including OWS, in my Rebuild The Dream book.
Sarah Arnold: We're just about out of time. Ari and Van, thank you for joining us. This was a great discussion. Any closing thoughts from either of you?
Van Jones: Someone asked earlier about the stimulus money. Let me say something about that.
Of the $787 billion, only one-third was for direct job creation—and much of that was in the form of long-term investment in technologies like smart batteries, etc. One-third was in the form of tax breaks for 95 percent of Americans.
People say, where did the money go? Well, one-third went into your pockets! The other third went to states and cities, to prevent massive layoffs of teachers, cops, firefighters, etc. So if you saw any cops or teachers during 2009-10, thank Obama and the stimulus. Hundreds of thousands would have been on the unemployment line.
Team Obama made a huge mistake positioning the bill as a "job creation" bill, primarily. It apparently saved more jobs (important jobs!) than it created, and it saved money for Americans in a time of trouble. Keep that in mind in evaluating it. I only wish it had been bigger, with more money going directly to employ people to do good work -like repowering America with clean energy!
I guess we are out of time. Good-bye! :)
Ari Berman: Thanks for having us and thanks to Van for participating. Please check out my writing at TheNation.com & herdingdonket.com and on Twitter at @AriBerman
Sarah Arnold: Thanks again, Ari and Van and our readers. This was a great discussion!