March 29, 2023

How does Occupy Wall Street Help/Hurt the President?

Starting from a small gathering in a privately owned park in Lower Manhattan, the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the country and the world. Their advocacy of the rights of the bottom “99%” of the population grabbed the public’s attention while the manner of their protest also garnered more negative attention. As President Obama sits approximately one year from potential reelection, one of the key questions facing his campaign strategists is how to harness, or run away from, Occupy Wall Street.

At its core, many of the positions of Occupy Wall Street match up well with the “Yes We Can” spirit of the original Obama campaign. The calls to level the playing field between the Wall Street elite and the regular people of the country match with typical Democratic rhetoric. Furthermore, many of the participants in Occupy Wall Street are young and college-educated, a group which made up a large part of the president’s constituency in the last election. The concept of supporting the 99 percent also helps to echo an ongoing theme in Democratic campaigning that the Republican Party stands for the interests of the moneyed elite.

Early on in the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama allied himself with the protestors in spirit if not in actuality. Much of his rhetoric matched themes identified by the movement. In addition, he even attempted to draw parallels between the movement and the Tea Party. With a campaign shaping up to be dominated by populist themes, Occupy Wall Street has clearly had an impact on the Obama re-election strategy. This makes excellent strategic sense since the financial services industry remains extremely unpopular in the aftermath of the housing bubble and Great Recession.

On the other hand, as the bad behavior at many Occupy camps has gained more media attention and public opprobrium, it has become a potential source of damage the President’s campaign. While claiming solidarity with the “99%” is good politics, being aligned with unreported rapes, public defecation, and rioting is not. One sign of Obama’s discomfort with the way that Occupy Wall Street has shaped up is the role of executive branch agencies including the FBI and Homeland Security in coordinating local crackdowns on Occupy camps.

Cozying up to Occupy Wall Street also carries a second danger for President Obama. Given that the investment banking community has historically supported Democratic candidates, and that he has also received a great deal of largesse from the industry, it could be embarrassing if these ties get released. In fact, three of his top ten contributor groups in 2008 were employees of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.

With these considerations in mind, the Obama campaign will have a challenging relationship with Occupy Wall Street moving forward. Co-opting their populist appeals will likely be excellent strategy for him. On the other hand, getting too close risks both exposing his contributor base as well as tying him to protest methods which are anathema to most Americans.


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