The Occupy Wall Street movement is in danger of being taken over by "professional protesters" and radicals, which could damage its standing with the general public, strategists of both political parties say. But if demonstrators can avoid the perception of extremism, the "Occupy" movement could become a formidable force on the political left, the strategists add.
Anti-corporate protests that started in New York several weeks ago have spread across the country to Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Tampa, Washington, D.C. and other cities and towns. Violence has erupted in some places, notably in Oakland where a confrontation with police this week left an Iraq war veteran with a skull fracture after he participated in a demonstration.
Some GOP leaders are already on the attack. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a leader of House Republicans, argues that President Obama is sowing the seeds of civil unrest and class resentment that is now manifesting itself in the "Occupy" movement.
A senior Republican who advised President Ronald Reagan says, "The problem for 'Occupy' is professional protesters who want to push a far-left agenda and battle with police. Most people don't want that." He predicts that mainstream Americans will turn against the Occupy protests if the events seem "out of control and if they are taken over by the radical left."
For his part, President Obama has been sympathetic to the protesters but has not actually endorsed them. "We understand the frustrations that are being expressed," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday, "specifically with regard to the need to make sure that Main Street and Wall Street operate by the same set of rules, and the general frustration with the need for jobs and economic growth that creates opportunity for middle-class Americans." Carney added: "As to the violence, we obviously believe and insist that everyone behave in a lawful manner, even as they're expressing, justifiably, their frustrations."
TIhe protesters are reflecting a deep disenchantment throughout the country. Seventy-six percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in America, up from 69 percent in April, according to a new Fox News poll. Forty-six percent say the "Occupy" movement reflects the views of most Americans, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll. But 47 percent of voters are at least somewhat concerned that Occupy Wall Street demonstrations will turn into street violence, according to the Fox poll.
Only 10 percent of Americans say they trust government, the lowest rating in the decades-long history of the CBS/Times survey. For the first time, Congress's job-approval rating has dropped below 10 percent, with only 9 percent of Americans having faith in their current lawmakers. Americans are split on Obama, with 46 percent approving his job performance and 46 percent disapproving.
Pollsters have long said that most Americans aren't bothered when individuals or companies get rich, as long as the affluent don't hold everyone else down in the process. Now there's a feeling that Wall Street and the big banks are in collusion with government, that they ruined the economy and hurt the middle class, and yet the offenders got federal bailouts that weren't available to ordinary people.
The tenor of the times is disenchantment, distrust, and gloom. "Occupy" could intensify the anger, making the political mix all the more volatile.