For some in the Democratic Party, that may come as a news flash, however. Back in mid-October, I happened to be on a panel at Baruch College sponsored by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The panel’s moderator asked how we thought Occupy Wall Street might affect the 2012 presidential race. Elaine Kamarck—a lecturer at the Kennedy School and veteran of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Al Gore’s in 2000—offered a sunny (for Democrats) prognosis. “I think it is evidence of the fact that the young generation, which is the Obama base, is still very much engaged … I think they’re going to turn out for him. They have some complaints with him, which are probably justified. But all I see there is the energy.”
Kamarck was echoing the view—or at the least the hope—of Obama’s reelection team. A week earlier, David Plouffe, his campaign manager in 2008 and now a senior adviser in the White House, had told the Washington Post that the Obamans intended to make the public ire at Wall Street crystallized by OWS “one of the central elements of the campaign next year.” A few days after that, the White House ostentatiously declared that Obama is fighting for “the 99 percent,” while the president himself told ABC News, “I understand the frustrations being expressed in those [OWS] protests.”
What Obama may not understand so well is the degree of frustration inspired by him specifically among the protesters and their prime movers. Or the extent to which OWS and its energy is, as one liberal strategist puts it, is “the rotten fruit of Obamaism”—an army of young people, many of them inspired and mobilized by his campaign in 2008, who feel betrayed by his performance since he has, er, occupied the Oval Office.
“He cheated,” says Husain, who volunteered for the campaign on the belief that Obama could be a transformative president. “He ran on a platform he never intended to push. He made promises he never intended to keep. I was just amazed in his inaugural speech how little transformative there was. And then Tim Geithner—what the hell was that? And then the bailouts. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what was going on. It was a continuation of the same bullshit.”
Then there are others who never put any faith in Obama in the first place. “The new boss is ever the same as the old boss,” says Sandy Nurse. “I think if either political party or politician thinks they have any credibility to come down here and tap into this energy, they’re gravely misinformed.”
The last point is one I heard again and again from OWSers about Team Obama’s talk of channeling the movement. “They don’t have a fucking clue what they are talking about,” says Berger. “These [protesters] aren’t out here because they’re offended that they haven’t been spoken to nicely. They’re out here because they owe shitloads of money in student-loan debt and can’t find a job. Or they can’t afford their mortgage. And if Obama thinks that they’re gonna be able to divert this energy by talking about doing something, he’s got another think coming.”
To be sure, if OWS falls part, Obama stands some chance of picking up the pieces. “If this dies, people might say, ‘Look, we need to do something,’ ” allows Husain. But what if the opposite occurs? What if OWS continues to grow?
If it does, it will mean that the movement has succeeded in drawing an influx of more conventional lefties and even plain-vanilla liberals, which in turn might exacerbate the tensions already extant between OWS’s radical and reformist elements, but would be the inevitable price of attaining mass scale. The efforts to make that happen are picking up steam by the day. Next week, for instance, two of the country’s largest unions, the SEIU and the CWA, along with progressive groups such as the Center for Community Change, are planning to bus thousands of protesters to Washington, set up tents on the lawn on the Mall, and stage an action called Occupy Congress.
Occupy Congress is intended to lobby on behalf of Obama’s jobs agenda. But in truth the expansion of OWS that it represents could pose substantial political risks to the president in 2012—and it is here that the parallels to 1968 are at once resonant and meaningful. Back then, Richard Nixon built his campaign around an appeal to “the silent majority,” fueling and exploiting a growing backlash among white middle- and working-class voters against the less palatable aspects of the counterculture and its movements, and tarring Hubert Humphrey with guilt by association with them.
In the run-up to 2012, eerily similar Republican efforts are already being market-tested—from Eric Cantor’s decrying of the OWSers as “mobs,” to Herman Cain’s claim that the protests are being “planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration,” to Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the protesters should be told, “Go get a job right after you take a bath.” As organized labor becomes increasingly involved with OWS, expect the attacks to extend from hippie-punching to union-bashing. Reacting to the news of Occupy Congress, the influential conservative blog RedState.com declared, “What began as a Neo-Communist movement that allegedly only had the goal of destroying capitalism has now become a full-fledged, union-financed class war.”