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McManus: Obama in the Occupy Wall Street camp

ElectionsPoliticsUnrest, Conflicts and WarDemonstrationBusinessOccupy Wall StreetWhite House

If you're one of the thousands of demonstrators sleeping in parks, carrying signs and banging on drums to protest Wall Street's hammerlock on American politics, President Obama wants you to know he feels your pain.

"I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests," Obama said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday.

"The most important thing we can do right now," he added, is "letting people know that … we are on their side."

When he first expressed sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement two weeks ago, Obama added a characteristically cautious qualification: "We have to have a strong, effective financial sector in order for us to grow."

But this week, as he has taken his campaign message on the road, the president has sounded a more populist, and more partisan, tone.

His Republican opponents, Obama said in Asheville, N.C., on Monday, "want to gut regulations. They want to let Wall Street do whatever it wants."

It might seem surprising that a coolly technocratic president, who once cast himself as a centrist mediator, is now so ready to identify himself with the protesters occupying city parks.

Until you look at the polls, that is.

A Time magazine poll released last week found that 54% of Americans had a favorable impression of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and other surveys have found similar numbers.

Even Eric Cantor, the fiercely conservative leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, figured that out. After initially condemning the protesters as a "mob," Cantor backtracked last week, saying, "People are upset, and they're justifiably frustrated…. I get it."

Even more important to Obama and his strategists, the Time poll found that among Democrats, the protesters' favorable rating swelled to 66%.

Some of the demonstrators may look scruffy after living in tents for weeks, but they're admired by the people who put Obama in the White House three years ago — and whose support he needs to win a second term in 2012.

Obama has a motivation problem with his young and liberal base. They've been hit hard by unemployment, frustrated by the president's inability to fix the economy and disappointed by his moves toward the center. A CNN poll released this week reported that only 42% of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about voting next year; among Republicans, 64% said they were enthusiastic. That "enthusiasm gap" worries the Obama campaign.

The president doesn't have any primary challengers, but he's running in a shadow primary all the same. He needs to reconnect with his base and to reassure them that he's still a community organizer at heart. Expressing sympathy for Occupy Wall Street is one way to do that.

The protests have also given the Obama campaign an easy angle of attack against Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican candidate. "He represents really the Wall Street side of business — you know, he stripped down companies, outsourced jobs — in ways that I think reflect people's concerns about the economy," Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, said this week on MSNBC.

That reflects another pillar of Obama's reelection strategy: framing next year's vote as a choice between two candidates and two programs — a contest he might be able to win — instead of a referendum on Obama's success at reviving the economy, a contest he's likely to lose.

But can Obama succeed in turning grass-roots anger, some of which is directed at his own stewardship of the economy, to his electoral advantage?

It won't be easy. Ever since he began running for president in 2007, he has oscillated between two Obamas, the liberal populist and the centrist mediator; but the net result has made both halves of his 2008 coalition — liberals and centrists — skeptical.

At this point, most of the Occupy Wall Street folks don't appear to want anything to do with Obama, or any other officeholder, for that matter.

Among the placards at the Occupy D.C. tent city two blocks north of the White House this week was one that read: "BHO is no FDR or LBJ." Leaving aside the irony of a sign celebrating a president, Lyndon B. Johnson, whom demonstrators helped drive from office 43 years ago, the occupiers don't seem in a mood to accept Obama as an ally.

"We don't want to associate with politicians because that would just divide people," Sonia Silbert, one of the coordinators of Washington's protests, told me. "I'm not surprised that the Obama campaign is trying to ride this thing. But if we went in that direction, that would be the end of the moment, right there."

What's remarkable, though, is how anxious the Obama campaign appears to be to get on the protesters' good side.

I asked Axelrod by email this week whether he saw a need to keep any distance from a movement that was both critical of the president and, well, a little fringy.

"No," he replied. "I think some of the frustration and outrage they're expressing are also being expressed much more broadly…. People are angry. And they should be."

Obama won the presidency in 2008 by calling for "change you can believe in."

Now, as 2012 approaches, he's not likely to grab a sleeping bag and head for a park. But he's hoping to convince the occupiers — and the much larger number of Americans who share their anger — that a part of him would like to.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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