Like establishment Republicans who are still trying to decide how close to hold the tea party, Obama and Democrats are gauging the impact of Occupy Wall Street and approaching it cautiously. The profusion of free speech at the Thursday rally suggests that's a prudent course for now. Some of the protestors, who clearly don't live in the same gridlocked political universe as the rest of us, are dreaming big in ways no politician would go near.
Take Candace Wolf, 62, a professional storyteller and oral historian from Takoma Park, Md., whose hand-made sign read, "Just Say No to War and Capitalism." Yes, she would like to end war and replace capitalism with socialism. "It sends up all kinds of red flags and harkens back to the Soviet Union," Wolf acknowledged of the latter, but maybe "we can make socialism work so it doesn't reproduce some of the errors of the past."
Veronica Fellerath Lowell, 70, of Silver Spring, Md., and a retired Catholic Charities worker, got no love for her sign supporting a 25 percent cut in the military budget. "Why don't we just cut it off altogether? I'm sick of it," a passing woman said to her. Lowell later told me 25 percent was just a starting point. She would prefer a minimalist military -- maybe even no military, like in Costa Rica, where the police force handles security.
Even the core Occupy Wall Street message was expressed in language strong enough to make a conventional pol rush off the plaza. "We will fight these corporate monsters and their wholly owned subsidiaries, the people who now operate the levers of power in this city," radio talker Mike Malloy, the rally emcee, bellowed from the stage.
Those wholly owned subsidiaries include Obama, some protestors said. "My feeling is that poor Mr. Obama is being run by Goldman Sachs and we can't have that," said Barbara Gummere, 65, a retired tennis coach and business owner from Hendersonville, N.C. She said the purpose of the protest was to "show the government of this country that the people are not going to wait any longer for change in Washington."
Asked about Occupy Wall Street at a White House press conference just before the rally, Obama said he understands the frustration and urgent needs of those who are on the economic edge. Mostly though he talked about how he is in favor of consumer watchdogs and against hidden bank fees, derivative cocktails and gaming the system. As for why his administration hasn't put Wall Street titans on trial for fraud, he replied, "The president can't go around saying 'Prosecute somebody.'"
A short while later, onstage at Freedom Plaza, a guitarist sang of police who greeted protestors with "truncheons and bullets to the head." The song -- "When the Dictator Ran Away" -- is about Mohammed Bouazizi, the despairing Tunisian fruit-seller who set himself on fire and triggered the Arab Spring. Even the most impassioned protestors aren't likely to claim parallels with deeply oppressed Arab nations. But Occupy Wall Street has identified a real problem at an opportune moment. With leadership, luck, focus and money, political clout is not an impossible dream. The tea party triumphs prove it.
Image credit: Molly Riley/Reuters