But it is unclear whether this sudden burst of energy on the American left will help Obama and other Democrats. The protests are gaining steam around a set of economic grievances and a wariness of both parties’ reliance on corporate campaign money — and Democratic officials are wondering how, or whether, they can tap into a movement that seems fed up with all brands of partisan politics.
That tension has been evident in recent days in debates raging online and in person at demonstration sites across the country.
An Obama strategist from Florida, Steve Schale, posted on his Facebook page that “clamoring for change is hollow unless you vote.” He linked to an image from the liberal Think Progress blog calling on activists to “Occupy the Polls.”
A former Obama volunteer from central Florida, Madison Paige, retorted on Schale’s page that voting alone couldn’t fix the system, saying, “We have to be willing to do the hardest work — and that means taking a look in the mirror when necessary.”
At Occupy D.C., the McPherson Square encampment inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a shouting match erupted this week when a woman describing herself as a longtime Democratic campaign worker encouraged the young protesters to express their concerns by voting, only to be told that voting wasn’t enough.
Those contentious moments help illustrate the difficulty facing Democratic officials as they try to capitalize on the sudden emergence of liberal energy that is growing fast — but expanding largely separate and apart from traditional party institutions.
Some party allies are trying to help. Unions are providing legal advice, food and Internet service in some locations, with labor leaders intervening late Thursday on behalf of protesters in a dispute with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) over the use of a Wall Street park.
Party and White House officials are watching mostly from the sidelines.
“We don’t know: Is this a sustaining movement or is it a flash of anger?” said one House Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.
John Podesta, who as president of the liberal Center for American Progress is a close White House ally, said the party establishment is waiting to see what happens next. “They’ve opened up an important space for a national conversation, but where it goes from here depends on the staying power of the organizing effort,” he said.
The dilemma mirrors the choice that confronted Republican Party officials in 2009 as the tea party movement found its footing and began challenging establishment figures in the GOP hierarchy. Over time, a series of establishment groups such as FreedomWorks began coordinating with the activists, and the tea-party insurgency began to more closely resemble the energized GOP base.