House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) struck a new tone on the Occupy Wall Street movement Tuesday, expressing empathy for the protesters and taking aim instead at Democratic leaders for encouraging the protests.

Asked repeatedly about his criticism last week of the movement as a “growing mob,” Cantor on Tuesday declined to repeat the phrase, instead telling reporters at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing that he understood the protesters’ frustrations.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of focus on some of the gatherings and the protests in this town, New York and other places,” Cantor said. “People are upset, and they’re justifiably frustrated. They’re out of work. The economy is not moving. Their sense of security for the future is not clear at all. People are afraid and I get it.”

But he added that “when we have elected leaders stirring the pot, if you will, that’s not good.”

“What I was attempting to say is that the actions and statements that elected leaders in this town condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans is not very helpful,” Cantor said. “What we need to do is come together as one, all Americans. And to sit here and vilify one sector of the economy, industries, et cetera, is not helpful. People are lacking confidence right now.”

The White House and Democratic leaders were quick to pounce on Cantor’s “mob” remarks, which the Virginia Republican made last Friday at the Family Research Council’s annual Values Voter Summit. Cantor, Democrats argued, did not use such pejorative language to describe similar protests by the tea party movement over the past two years.

“I sense a little hypocrisy unbound here — what we’re seeing on the streets of New York is an expression of democracy,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week. “I think I remember how Mr. Cantor described protests of the tea party.”

While Cantor on Tuesday did not repeat his “mob” comment, he maintained that the tea party movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests were fundamentally “very different.”

The main distinction, Cantor said, is that the “folks who are involved and continue to be so with the tea party are worried about the government and its policies,” whereas the Occupy Wall Street movement is about “pitting of one part of our country against another.”

“The tea party were individuals that were ... seeking redress of their grievances from the government that they had elected,” Cantor said. “And they’re different from what I see of the protesters on Wall Street and elsewhere that are, again, pitting themselves against others outside government in America. That’s the difference.”

Toward the end of Tuesday’s pen-and-pad session, Cantor and Politico’s David Rogers took part in a heated back-and-forth on the difference between protesters aiming their ire at the government as opposed to at others in society, during which Cantor again declined to say whether he regretted describing the Occupy Wall Street protesters as a “mob.”

“The ire from the tea party’s standpoint is at Washington,” Cantor said. “It is about the government and its policies, and how that affects this country.”

“Do you not see the government as representing the people?” Rogers asked.

“Sure, it’s of the people,” Cantor responded. “But we’re in an elected position and trying to lead, to solve problems. I don’t believe that our role is to inflame a division between different parts and sectors of American society.”

(For more on the exchange, read Slate’s David Weigel.)