President Obama’s awkward, unreturned embrace of Occupy Wall Street is among the strangest developments of the 2012 campaign.
The tie-dyed T-shirt doesn’t fit. Obama has been the unrivaled leader in fundraising from the financial sector in recent years. Senior staffers with Wall Street connections have occupied the White House for some time now. Banks and financial-service firms have been some of the main direct beneficiaries of Obama’s economic policies.
And Obama himself has often sought to defuse public criticism of Wall Street. In his first joint-session speech to Congress, he acknowledged discontent with the banks but warned, “We cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.” Last year, he went out of his way to defend large bonuses for the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen. I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.”
Now begrudging is suddenly the order of the day. Such tensions are not unknown during the Obama era. The immigration-friendly president deported 400,000 immigrants last year, a record. The defender of due process in the war on terrorism deploys thousands of drones that shoot to kill. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well then, I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes.”
But this particular contradiction involves political risks. Presidential campaigns usually value message discipline. Obama has tied the message of his campaign to a group with far more resentments than focused demands. As one member of Occupy Wall Street’s Demands Working Group recently put it, “The Demands Group could also have a discussion of, what are ‘demands’ . . . Part of demands has to be understanding what demands mean to the development of a democratic culture.”
Once this interesting discussion is concluded, the political message of Occupy Wall Street could emerge in nearly any form — from mainstream leftism to embarrassing extremism. The movement contains ideological multitudes — the honestly offended as well as professional provocateurs; sincere populists as well as socialists, anarchists and anti-Semites. Obama is betting that Occupy Wall Street protesters can be domesticated. Their only clear demand, so far, is that they don’t want to be domesticated.
Yet Obama and other Democratic leaders are risking more than political embarrassment. They may do lasting damage to perceptions of their party. Over the years, Democrats have suffered from many stereotypes — big-city bosses, prairie populists, New Deal eggheads, Great Society planners. But the most destructive Democratic image has been the theatrical, radical protester of the late 1960s. Many journalists remember the Yippies, the Battle of Michigan Avenue, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Chicago Seven with nostalgia.
Most Americans, however, viewed this social movement with alarm. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became two of the most successful politicians of their time by siding with authority and propriety against disorder and radicalism. It was one of the main reasons blue-collar Democrats became susceptible to Republican appeals. When a student protester confronted Reagan’s car and shouted, “We are the future,” the then-governor of California wrote out in response: “I’ll sell my bonds.” The silent majority cheered.
Democrats — who took a generation to escape the taint of countercultural excess — now seem willing to risk that association again. And there are few things more powerful or damaging than confirming a preexisting, negative political image. A skilled political figure such as Bill Clinton might find a way to identify with the frustrations of Occupy Wall Street while distancing himself from its extremes. Obama does not play in that league.
The reaction to Occupy Wall Street reveals a gap of perceptions in America. Many liberal politicians, along with many in the media, see tent cities and clashes with the police as evidence of idealism. Many others, however, define idealism as something different from squatting in a park — as voting, walking precincts, volunteering in the community, supporting good causes and persuading their neighbors. These citizens may even share the discontents of Occupy Wall Street while rejecting its methods and culture.
No presidential campaign would willingly choose the high-risk strategy of identifying with a controversial, half-formed, leftist protest. But unable to take credit for economic recovery, Obama may have no other choice. He needs an economic dragon to slay, even if he once fed and tended it.
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