10/03/2011 06:32 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Protests Spark Optimism At Campaign For America's Future Conference

WASHINGTON -- Progressive leaders have flocked to the nation's capital for a conference devoted to organizing a political movement to overwhelm the Tea Party. They are tapping into the national energy surrounding the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations in New York, which have sparked other demonstrations in cities around the nation.

The conference, dubbed "Take Back the American Dream," is an overhaul of an annual event hosted by Campaign for America's Future, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. Economic concerns are the top focus of the conference, with speakers bemoaning growing income inequality, rampant joblessness and what they consider Washington's catering to the demands of large corporations.

The high-profile protests in New York City are having a significant effect on the conference; the official schedule on Monday was changed at the last minute to include a special opening plenary updating attendees on events in New York, as other activists distributed a faux-newspaper dubbed "The Occupied Wall Street Journal."

Although the conference is sponsored by a D.C.-based organization and features many progressives who are based in the nation's capital, most of the conference has been dedicated to focusing activist energy outside Washington and on public demonstrations akin to those taking place on Wall Street. Van Jones, a former Obama adviser who was ousted amid pressure from former Fox News host Glenn Beck, summed up the conference's goals in a speech that prompted a standing ovation from the packed house of organizers.

"I'm not mad at the Tea Party. I'm not mad at them for being so loud. I'm mad at us for being so quiet," Jones said. "They're not wrong to stand up for what they believe in, silly as it is. We've been wrong. We have the wrong theory of the presidency. ... We went from having a movement to a movie, as if the movement we were a part of was based on a slogan called 'Yes he can.' I believe it was called, 'Yes we can.'"

The annual Campaign for America's Future conference has been a mainstay of progressive politics in recent years, but its popularity has eroded, in part because of frustration with the Obama administration among some on the left. The audience at this year's conference, however, is remarkably more optimistic and energetic than that of last year's event, with hundreds of attendees reveling in the news coming from the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Dissatisfaction with President Obama's ability to capitalize on the progressive energy that helped catapult him into the White House is clearly on display. Jones and many lesser-known political activists called on attendees to stop waiting on the administration and start taking action in their own neighborhoods. Speaking at a panel on protests targeting Wall Street banks, Guido Girgenti, a student organizer from Occidental College in Los Angeles said the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon had made his job a lot easier.

"A lot of young people never learned how to engage in politics. They were fed that the Obama campaign was the peak of progressive politics," said Girgenti. "Today, my feed is full of 18 to 20 year olds, and everyone wants to go to an occupation. It's amazing."

At the same panel, Phoenix, Ariz., resident Sharon Stewart drew a connection between the current resurgence of progressive confidence and a longer history of progressive activism.

"I remember some of this energy around the Obama campaign, the same kind of feeling from that," Steward said. She also mentioned the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. "I think the Battle for Seattle maybe kicked off some of this stuff that's happening now," she said.