10/07/2011 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2011

The Art of the Impossible

The Occupy Wall Street movement has demonstrated -- in the most literal sense of the word -- its geometrically growing power. Week by week, the movement is growing in strength. In less than a month, in fact, it has gotten the attention of a profoundly inattentive Washington establishment.

In yesterday's press conference, President Obama himself acknowledged the Occupy movement:

Obviously I've heard of it. I've seen it on television. I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel -- that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place.

So far, so good. I'm glad Mr. Obama is willing to address what's happening, and seems to grasp the general impetus behind the movement. But he's also dedicated himself to the status quo and the mildest of half-measures, saying, "...On the issue of prosecutions on Wall Street, one of the biggest problems ... is that a lot of that stuff wasn't necessarily illegal, it was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless. That's exactly why we needed to pass Dodd-Frank, to prohibit some of these practices."

In other words, little, if anything, is going to be done, because he doesn't feel there wasn't any real wrongdoing.

Why is the president unwilling to allow that the crisis requires anything more than tinkering around the edges? Probably because admitting the full scale of the problem would require admitting he's not up to the task. I'm not picking on him especially, please understand -- nobody in public office is up to the task. The system in Washington is so corrupt, the influence of money so entrenched, it is impossible for an insider to challenge it.

But a challenge must be made, and won, or the movement could well become a general uprising. Like many in the Democratic establishment, Mr. Obama knows he must limit the scope of the Occupy movement's aims. He has allowed Republicans to box him in completely. The best he can hope for from his own party is a handful of laws that won't get passed. But he needs to do something; otherwise he's got an insurrection on his left to deal with when he fails to deliver. So it is understandable, from that standpoint, why he is trying to sell the political equivalent of homeopathic placebos to a body politic in need of much stronger medicine.

It's too early to tell, but I think this 'our hands are tied' approach is not going to fly with this movement. There are too many extremely intelligent people involved, and they don't care what Washington thinks is possible. The youngest of the protestors have lived their entire adult lives in the political and economic disaster America has become; they have no promise of future prosperity. The oldest protestors, meanwhile, have seen their future prosperity taken away. The 'Art of the Possible' (as Bismarck described politics) does not interest people who are being told that nothing is possible.

So there stands the dilemma: nobody who has experienced the effects of this political and economic nightmare, and understands its ramifications, has any confidence in the ability of the system to self-correct, especially given the timorous, doomed little gestures at reform that are being proposed.

But if you're a member of the political elite, you know nothing can change. It would take the kind of leadership and strength of purpose that has been absent from the Hill for nearly fifty years. So the only thing to do is to try to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement and turn it into a platform for the Democratic Party's re-election efforts ("take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes"), or, if you're a Republican, to denounce its diverse membership as a bunch of dirty, incoherent hippies, a mob in need of the Kent State treatment.

I don't think those efforts are going to fly, either. It will be interesting to discover what happens if the people stop taking 'impossible' for an answer. We may yet find out a great deal more is possible than we ever imagined.