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Why Obama Cannot "Occupy Wall Street" and Win

Why Obama Cannot "Occupy Wall Street" and Win

By David Paul Kuhn - October 27, 2011


President Obama’s re-election campaign reportedly plans to embrace the populist cause of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The critical question is whether he will ally with the movement itself. Obama might delight liberals if he does. He would also jeopardize his own re-election.

Liberals today, understandably, take comfort in public opinion polls that show a majority of Americans agree with activists’ broad populist views. But protesters can fight the majority’s cause and still lose the majority in the fight.

In August 1968, a slim majority of Americans believed the Vietnam War was a “mistake.” That same month, the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago. Chaos ensued. Cameras captured police pummeling protesters. “Demonstrators were afterward delighted to have been manhandled before the public eye,” Norman Mailer wrote.

Yet most Americans sided with the cops. They believed the activists were not challenging the war but, instead, the concept of law-and-order itself.

The Chicago experience still haunts liberals. Several analysts have already discussed Occupy Wall Street through the lens of ’68. But the key lesson has been overlooked: Americans may side with activists’ cause but not necessarily with the activists.

Today, polls show the majority of Americans believe a major culprit in this recession is Wall Street. They think the gap between the rich and the poor is too large. That the rich should pay higher taxes. That wealth should be more evenly distributed. This is the bridge between Occupy Wall Street and Main Street. Americans have not, however, made up their minds about the activists. A quarter of the public approves of the protests, a fifth opposes them and 55 percent doesn’t “know enough to say,” according to Gallup.

Most Americans will likely not develop strong feelings about the movement, barring a dramatic event. Ideological commentary forever distorts the moderate temperament of America. The chattering class has fixated on the Tea Party movement for years. But Gallup finds that a large plurality of Americans consider themselves neither supporters nor opponents of the Tea Party.

Democrats crave a grass-roots counterweight to the Tea Party -- and for good reason, as polls show that Democrats do not match the passion of Republicans, and that enthusiasm gap could foretell weak Democratic voter turnout in 2012.

That’s a key reason Obama and his team have decided to harness public anger at Wall Street. According to The Washington Post, that theme is “a central tenet of their re-election strategy.” But it’s one thing to vent public anger. It’s quite another to ally with the angriest.

So far, Obama has struck the right strategic balance. The president has affirmed Occupy Wall Street’s motive but not endorsed the movement. “The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” he said earlier this month at a White House press conference. “They’re not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party. Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them,” he added in an interview with ABC News.

That too was more affirmation than embrace. And it’s smart. Liberal activists must tread more carefully than their conservative counterparts in modern America. For decades, there have been roughly twice as many self-identified conservatives as liberals.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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