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It's not clear yet whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will be a good thing or a bad thing for Democrats. That's why President Obama always treads carefully when asked about them.
"People are frustrated, and that frustration has expressed itself in a lot of different ways," he said Tuesday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "It expressed itself in the Tea Party. It's expressing itself in Occupy Wall Street."
Polls show there is broad support for the sentiment behind Occupy Wall Street, with almost half agreeing with the protesters' views about income inequality and corporate greed.
But the protesters have yet to turn their frustrations into clear-cut goals.
"I really am into social change, and I want to see some changes in our country. Just kind of a changing in how, you know, the way society is structured," says Sarah MacAdams, who's been occupying downtown Washington at an encampment two blocks north of the White House.
The Power Of A 'Populist Revolt'
Obama describes the protests as a left-wing Tea Party, but that's far from clear.
"At this point, we're staying away from political actions and really focusing on building awareness," protester Ashley Lowe says.
Unlike the Tea Party, which was willing to walk precincts and field candidates in a successful effort to push the Republican Party to the right, Occupy Wall Street doesn't want to get involved in electoral politics — at least not yet. Even so, former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston says he thinks the protests represent a force Democrats should try to harness.
"We're having a populist revolt now because the people who soared off into the economic stratosphere during the past two decades did not discharge their responsibilities to the broader society," Galston says. "And I think President Obama has everything to gain and nothing to lose by articulating that basic truth."
But another centrist Democrat, Matt Bennett of the group Third Way, isn't so sure.
"When political parties get close to angry populist movements, bad things tend to happen — it certainly has happened to Democrats before," he says. "So we're a little bit worried about how Democrats can embrace some of the themes of the Occupy Wall Street folks without really embracing the movement itself."
Bennett wants to avoid having Democrats tied to the excesses of the fringe of the Occupy Wall Street protests — the way the party was tied for decades to the excesses of the anti-war movement.
Republicans see that opportunity. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has called Occupy Wall Street "growing mobs." Talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have made similar charges.
"The violent left is coming to our streets — all of our streets — to smash, to tear down, to kill, to bankrupt, to destroy," Beck said recently.
"This is Obama's protest to counter the Tea Party," Limbaugh said. "They're jealous! The Democrats are so jealous of [the] Tea Party they can't see straight."
A Tough Balancing Act
If Occupy Wall Street had an agenda, it might be able to bring grass-roots energy to the Democrats the way the Tea Party did for the GOP.
But first, Obama would have to win the movement back. He told Leno that if people feel they're getting a fair shake, "then people won't be occupying the streets, because they'll have a job, and they'll feel like they're able to get ahead.
"But right now, they're frustrated. And part of my job over the next year is to make sure that if they're not seeing it out of Congress at minimum, they're seeing out of their president somebody who is going to be fighting for them," he said.
On Wednesday, the president took on one of the demonstrators' issues, announcing that some student loans can be refinanced sooner than originally planned. That should appeal to the young saddled with mountains of college debt and no jobs.
But when it comes to Wall Street, the balancing act for Obama hasn't been easy. He's oscillated between bashing Wall Street and accommodating it.
"The most successful Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, managed to channel populist energy and anger without pandering to it or succumbing to it politically," Galston says. "And that is the challenge for a leader like Barack Obama."
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