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Why Obama Should Stand By the Wall Street Protesters

10/12/2011 06:09 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

For many days the media ignored the Occupy Wall Street movement, but they finally had to give in and report on it. The excessive actions of the NYPD helped put the movement on the map, and then, as the demonstrations spreading to other cities across America, the anger and frustration of our citizens was plain to see. Unfocused, yes, but it was obviously a discontent that could not be ignored and spoke to a large segment of Americans. I'm too old to paint my face, but I can identify with the protesters.

Last week, talking with French documentary filmmakers who want to make a film comparing FDR's New Deal and President Obama's response to the current Great Recession, I moaned that our president would probably still ignore the Occupy Wall Street protesters (in spite of pictures of stock traders leaning over the stock exchange's balcony raising glasses of champagne to mock them in the street below).

Surely he would be advised to be cautious and to remain silent, I thought. It would be judged as far too risky politically -- the Republicans would jump all over him for encouraging "class warfare." I can imagine the intense conversations among the president's staff, as usual, weighing all the options. A few of them would see in this a golden opportunity for magnifying the plight of the nation caused by the Republican leaders' intransigence and their blinkered focus on the 2012 presidential elections. Add to that their support of the financial community's refusal to participate with the rest of us in the general fall-out from the recession (as a retired person it, cut my modest income by 25 percent). But the majority would advise the president not to speak.

And then, to my great surprise, he did it!

President Obama commented on the movement, stating that:

"It expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the great depression, huge collateral damage all across the country, all across main street. Yet, you're still seeing the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this mess in the first place...The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."

His statement did not take full advantage of the opportunity offered to candidate Obama. It is, typically, measured, and subsequently the White House did backtrack a bit. And the Republican response -- immediately condemning it as encouraging "class warfare" -- undoubtedly confirmed the fears of the administration's cautious advisers ("we told you so, Mr. President!"). They refuse to see that the Republican leaders' response provides even more ammunition for Obama to use when seeking re-election.

The number two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor, did attack the Occupy Wall Street movement, and then referred to Obama, saying:

"This administration's failed policies have resulted in an assault on many of our nation's bedrock principles. If you read the newspapers today, I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country. And believe it or not, some in this town, have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans."

Cantor isn't the only one railing against the demonstrations. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has accused them of "class warfare" and of being "dangerous," and his rival of the moment, Herman Cain, dismissed them, saying: "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks -- if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." At least he's plain about his attitude!

The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, blasted the media for providing "fair coverage" for the Occupy Wall Street protests. "They have no sense of purpose other than a basically anti-American tone," he said. King also explained that he is "old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy." He added, "We can't allow that to happen."

Well, to date, no "Danny the Red" has leapt atop the barricades, as he did in 1968 in Paris, to lead the demonstrators.

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political Independent, was more practical, but equally callous. He told theNew York Post of the protesters: "What they're trying to do is take the jobs away from people working in this city...They're trying to take away the tax base we have because none of this is good for tourism."

The Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has perhaps seen the political light and the potential of the protests across the nation. "I support the message to the establishment, whether it's Wall Street or the political establishment and the rest, that change has to happen," said Pelosi. "We cannot continue in a way that is not relevant to their lives."

Our vice president, Joe Biden, has made perhaps the keenest public observation, commenting that the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protesters had "a lot in common." In both cases, Biden noted, "people were rebelling against what they perceive as unfair collusion between the government and Wall Street."

Two years ago, I made speeches urging President Obama to address directly the gut-level dissatisfaction of those drawn to the amorphous "tea party" gatherings, before they had been co-opted into the Republican Party apparatus. Audiences responded well, but the White House wouldn't touch it.

The president has acknowledged the relevance of the discontent that protesters have expressed in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and other cities. How will he follow up? They are demonstrating for us. Some political pundits have seen the light. Jonathan Alter, writing for Bloomberg, thinks that maybe "it's the beginning of something consequential." Krugman and Reich both agree in their columns this week.

Franklin Roosevelt usually fitted together in a pragmatic way what was morally right and politically useful. Can Barack Obama do the same? He can see beyond the action of marching in the streets and the limitations of shouting slogans. He can appreciate the timeliness of this action, this blast against the power of the financial world. And he knows how it could work for him. By showing more support for what the demonstrations represent he would not only be doing the right thing but also improving his chances for re-election.

But will he? I like to hope and dream that he will. But my more realistic friends are likely to smile indulgently and comment, "Dream on, old man."