Obama, Occupy Wall Street and the Rebirth of the Left

barack obama bus tour
John W. Adkisson/Getty Images
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd while promoting the American Jobs Act during a stop on his three-day bus tour at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, North Carolina.
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Will Occupy Wall Street give the president running room on the left? Or another reason to tack to the center?

Barack Obama was the first candidate to rise to the White House on the strength of a movement of his own creation. But as president, he refused to leverage his millions of fervent supporters to change the ways of Washington. Instead, he muzzled them, and surrounded himself with insiders like Rahm Emanuel — who infamously told progressive activists that they were "fucking retarded" for trying make corrupt Democrats pay a political price for blocking the president's agenda. As Cornel West put it back in February, "Barack Obama has domesticated the left, in such a way that we feel like we have no alternative but him."

For more than two years, the activist left fell quiet. It watched as the Tea Party stole its populist thunder and as Obama became an establishment politician — even telling Wall Street bankers, “my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

In recent weeks, a decidedly more populist Obama has tried to revive his political machine, asking his once obedient backers to call their congressmen to aid the passage of his worthy-but-inadequate jobs bill. (Slogan: "We can't do nothing.") Rather than flooding the phone lines, however, fed up citizens flooded the streets — with a much more ambitious agenda: to restore economic fairness in America.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a game changer because it gives progressives a voice apart from the president who refused to change the game. It is unruly. Undomesticated. Willful. Fractious. Angry. Dangerous. And despite the best efforts of conservative critics to marginalize it as a bunch of feral hippies, this movement of "the 99 percent" has twice the support of the Tea Party.

The pitchforks have come out. The political question for the president is whether he has the sense to get out of the way.

For a knee-jerk centrist like Obama, the Occupy movement would seem to offer the perfect rhetorical counterbalance to the Tea Party. You can almost hear him outlining a speech in his head:

Some would have us destroy the safety net; others would have us burn down the banks. But there's another path that you, the exurban soccer mom, and you, the college-educated office-park dad would sensibly prefer. On this path, there's no marijuana to smoke, and no Kool Aid to drink... No dreadlocks and no tricorn hats. The first step down this path to a brighter future is to pass my worthy-but-inadequate jobs bill. 

But Obama seems to understand that Americans have tired of his playing the Reasonable Man. Or perhaps it's as simple as this: The Occupy movement is far more popular than any Democrat in Washington, himself included.

So, instead, there are tentative signs that the president intends to kiss up to the movement, not diss it. 

On a conference call with reporters this weekend outlining the American Jobs Act bus tour, a White House spokesman vowed that "the interests of the 99 percent of Americans" would be "well-represented."