President Barack Obama's week began with the setback of green-jobs czar Van Jones' resignation from the administration. It ends with the president buoyed by a sense that he has retaken control of the health-care reform debate and reversed the chaos that beset him and his reform plan in August.
The sudden reappearance of the bold, in-control, determined Obama during his address to Congress Wednesday seemed the exact prescription for the troubles of health-care reform. And despite the poisonous tone that slipped into the debate over the summer, the president blissfully invoked his image of the harmonious, bipartisan Post-Acrimony America that was so effective for him during his campaign for the presidency. But that is simply not where we live, and nothing is more illustrative of that reality than the whole Van Jones business. The Jones resignation is a virtual primer on the right wing's political warfare tactics, and it should not be dismissed by those who must develop a battle plan to defend health-care reform in the coming month.
On Wednesday night, after he explained and clarified, threatened and implored, after he defended the public option and then offered it up in compromise, the president said, "I still believe that we can act when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress."
That is not how the other side is playing. Ask Van Jones.
Jones either believes that the U.S. government was involved in September 11 or he does not. If he does, good riddance. If he doesn't, he should not be packing for a return to California, or wherever else he ends up, after six months on the job. In a rational world, no 9-11 conspiracy theorist would have a job in the White House but neither would a ridiculous, crazed, right-wing witch hunt have the power to force a committed, capable, energetic activist from serving his country.
But we do not live in rational times. Have not for a long time.
Jones is either one of the last casualties of the ideological wars of the Bush era or one of the first ones of the Obama era. Jones is not a truther; what he is someone who lived through the Bush wars and thought they were over. Glenn Beck got Jones because the right wing of the GOP is on offense, still fighting those wars of the W. years, while the Obama administration is playing defense.
Jones' amorphous White House job was not worth a big, distracting fight, especially on the eve of a bigger, more important fight about health-care reform. But at its core, the Jones resignation is a clear reminder for liberals, progressives, Democrats, and particularly for the administration, that the harsh ideological culture wars that underwent a special escalation in 2000 in the wake of Bush v. Gore are not entirely over. If the August health-care town halls did not make that clear enough, Van Jones left no doubt.
It is easy to see where we're headed. All we have to do is look back at how deformed our politics had gotten by the time George W. Bush was running for re-election in 2004, the year that Jones and 99 others signed that fateful petition. There was a clear sense that the Bush administration was using 9-11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for political advantage, and that it was getting away with it was deeply frustrating for opponents like Van Jones.
A few months earlier, the CIA had acknowledged that there had been no imminent threat of the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in the run up to the Iraq War. George Tenet had resigned as CIA director, and on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the vice president of the United States told a veteran senator to "go f--- yourself."
It was not a pretty time. And it was in that context that Jones signed a petition in opposition to the Bush administration. He should have read more carefully, obviously, but the fact that it came back to bite him in the ass is only evidence that the war drags on.
By the summer of 2008 when Jones assessed President Bush's plan to reduce the price of energy cost and came away saying that Bush reminded him of a crackhead, Bush's approval rating had dipped to 28 percent, only 60 percent even among Republicans. Surely he was being called a lost worse than a crackhead.
Beck, who called President Obama a racist, was offended by Jones characterization and made it part of his crusade against the green-jobs czar.
That kind of weaponized resentment is what the White House needs to be careful of as it tries to move health care toward the finish line, because while the country voted for and is rooting for change, there are those still fighting the Bush wars who should not be easily dismissed.
"We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it," Obama said on Wednesday. "I still believe we can act even when it's hard."
It'll be even harder if he does not acknowledge that he is in a war with the past.