Van Jones is the co-host of CNN's recently revived political-debate program, "Crossfire." Back on the air after it was canceled in 2005, the show will put him at the center of what the network says will be "America's great debates."
But he's no newcomer to strong political views. Jones, who got his start as a progressive activist, became President Obama's green-jobs advisor in 2009. After resigning when he was wrongly accused of signing a 9/11 truther petition, he founded Rebuild the Dream, a political organization designed to counter the Tea Party movement. His book of the same name gives his take on the administration's first term.
In other words, he's seen the Obama presidency from more angles than just about anyone.
"On my Twitter feed, half the time I'm being called a traitor to Obama, and half the time I'm being called a puppet for Obama," Jones has said.
So, on the five-year anniversary of President Obama's election, we asked the insider-turned-outsider-turned-conversation-shaper about his assessment of the state of the presidency, his plans to make sure "Crossfire" is a dialogue instead of a taking-points-fest and the work he's doing that has nothing to do with politics.
The Root: President Obama was elected five years ago. What do we know now that we didn't know then?
Van Jones: What I could say now a year and a half after Rebuilding the Dream is that we didn't predict that we would be faced with a right-wing insurgency movement whose only goal is to make the country ungovernable for Obama. When we were all crying five years ago in Chicago, or watching (the election returns) on TV, hugging each other, we thought the beauty in the country had defeated the ugliness. What happened was the triumph of the beauty accelerated the ugliness, and I don't think anyone predicted that.
I also think the Tea Party Movement that emerged is an insurgency, which is different than a normal political movement. This is a movement that's trying to make the country ungovernable. They are not in office trying to pass laws or solve problems. They are in office trying to keep President Obama from doing things, even the things they normally support.
The individual mandate is an idea that Nixon endorsed; that the Heritage Foundation enforces, that Romney implemented, but they shut down the government and threatened the full faith and credit of United States when Obama adopted their idea. That's highly abnormal.
Usually if a Democrat adopts Republican ideas like Obamacare, Republicans would claim a victory and help him implement it.
In this case, President Obama adopted the Republican idea, and was attacked for being a socialist.
TR: What have been some of the best moments despite that that "abnormal" behavior?
VJ: Obama's finest moment was finally standing up to the bullies during the shutdown. He showed that he does have a backbone. He realized he wasn't dealing with a normal political movement. He realized they were so extraordinary in their opposition that he would have to be extraordinary in his stance against them.
TR: How will the issues with the Affordable Care Act website affect President Obama's legacy?
VJ: I think it's too early to tell. For people who hate this president, this is his Hurricane Katrina. They'll never forgive it no matter how well it works out perfects. For Democrats and people in the middle, they're frustrated, but they jury is still out.
The website can be fixed. I remember when Twitter would go out all the time – the "fail whale." Nobody said, "I'm never going to use Twitter 'cause I went two years ago and it didn't work."
In politics, if you help 100 people and insult one, who do you think is most likely to go to ballot box and vote? The latter group will be 100 times more motivated. The question will be, can he keep the number of people who feel that their health insurance is worse than before below a critical mass? Can he keep that number low enough that they don't become an Obamacare backlash army?
TR: Why do you hope to get out of hosting a show like Crossfire?
VJ: Well, I actually believe in democracy. In a democracy, you don't always get your way but you should always get your say. I don't believe either side has a monopoly on good ideas. I'm hoping our audience comes away hearing something they didn't know – that they heard a side or perspective they didn't hear before. I won't be cutting people off. I want them to talk and express their views. I think our audience is thoughtful, and if they wanted to hear one side there's plenty of other places for them to do that.
TR: With a show that's designed to inspire debate, how are you avoid having it devolve into an exchange of talking points?
VJ: The thing about our show is that it's half an hour, and we only have one topic and two guests. We tell people all the time, we're going to do eight minutes, take a few minutes break, do eight more minutes, a break and then two more minutes. You're going to be out of talking points when you have more than half a show yet – I'm going to come out with questions that encourage people to go beyond talking points.
As a result, we've had some really amazing conversations.
TR: What's next on your agenda?
VJ: Right now, post-Trayon, I'm passionate about getting more opportunities to young men of color, especially in the technology space. I just feel like tech is the future and our young people should be creators and producers in that space. Rebuilding the Dream is going to be pushing a whole campaign around that, called #YesWeCode. It's an initiative to get 100,000 kids trained to be the best coders in the world.
(Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.)