It doesn't come as a huge surprise that President Obama has decided to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement. There has always been a certain drum circle flavor to this administration. In fact, nothing illustrated the point so well as when, a couple of weeks ago (before the president decided that OWS was his ticket to re-election), Vice President Biden referred in a radio interview to one of the agitators as "Van Jones, whoever he is." The program's host interjected that Jones was the former "green jobs" czar in the Obama administration. Ah.
But that's no longer an embarrassment because the administration and the Democratic Party have decided to join (or at least support) the throngs chanting, "What do we want? Revolution! When do we want it? Now!" Nancy Pelosi is pleased. "God bless them for their spontaneity." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced in a fundraising letter that it is seeking 100,000 signatures on a petition declaring "I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests." And David Plouffe, the president's senior campaign advisor, sounded upbeat for the first time in a while. "We intend to make it one of the central elements of the campaign next year," he told the Washington Post. "One of the main elements of the contrast will be that the president passed Wall Street reform and our opponent and the other party want to repeal it."
This strategy has, to put it mildly, a number of potential pitfalls. There is, for starters, the fact that, unlike the orderly and respectful Tea Party protesters, OWS has already done a number of things likely to alienate the average American. They've defecated on police cars, screamed anti-Semitic rants, trampled on the American flag and, as noted above, shouted themselves hoarse for revolution. Their signs bear such clever slogans as "F**k the rich." Again, in contrast to the Tea Party, they seem not so much opposed to bailouts in principle as simply wanting a piece of the action. One of the planks of their "platform" is the forgiveness of all debt. Another is "free" university education.
An additional complication for the Obama strategy is that it requires people to forget that he has been president. He will run again as the outsider, the man of the people against the plutocrats of the Republican Party. But this president supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program. He bailed out the auto companies. He was the darling of Wall Street bundlers in 2008. And one exasperated Wall Street insider told Politico:
"The president's Treasury Secretary was in charge of the New York Fed (during the start of) the bailout. The president reappointed Ben Bernanke, a key architect of the bailout ...The president's White House national economic council director took almost a million dollars from Goldman Sachs before joining the administration ... The president's national security advisor is a former top Fannie Mae lobbyist, and both of his OMB chiefs have ties to big banks. Obama's current chief of staff is from JP Morgan Chase, and his predecessor was on the board of Freddie Mac ... If the president really wants to send Wall Street a message, why doesn't he just convene a meeting of his senior staff?"
Also, voters have a tendency to judge presidents by results. Despite Plouffe's hope that "as people make the decision about who to go vote for, the gut check is going to be about, 'Who would make decisions more about helping my life than Wall Street?'" the more likely scenario is that voters will consider whether their lives are better or worse since the president took office. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson on second marriages, Plouffe and Obama would like voters to choose hope over experience.
A recent poll by The Hill newspaper suggests that while embracing OWS may encourage Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Roseanne Barr and others among the president's more frothing supporters, it will hurt him among average voters. When likely voters were asked whom they blamed for the country's recent financial crisis and recession, 56 percent said "Washington" as opposed to 33 percent who cited "Wall Street." Asked whether the OWS protests would help or hurt the president's reelection, 38 percent said hurt, while 28 percent thought it would help.
OWS is America's version of the Greek throngs in the streets -- screaming for more bailouts and subsidies when the well has run dry. It's a depressing image of self-delusion and national suicide. But far from the "99 percent," OWS represents only a sliver of the electorate -- and the president's embrace of them only confirms his marginality in American politics.