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The Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread from New York around the country reached a new level this week, as police arrested protesters in Oakland and Atlanta.
While the movement has yet to channel its energy into a candidate or even a party, President Obama is paying attention, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's not clear yet whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will be a good thing or a bad thing for Democrats. And that's why President Obama always treads carefully when asked about them. Here he is on Jay Leno, Tuesday night.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Look, people are frustrated. And that frustration has expressed itself in a lot of different ways. It expressed itself in the Tea Party. It's expressing itself in Occupy Wall Street.
LIASSON: A series of polls show there is broad support for the sentiment behind Occupy Wall Street, with almost half agreeing with the protestors' views about income inequality and corporate greed.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you do get lost, it's at H and New York Avenue.
LIASSON: But the protestors have yet to turn their frustrations into clear-cut goals.
SARAH MACADAMS: I really am into social change. And I want to see some changes in our country.
LIASSON: That's Sarah MacAdams who's been occupying downtown Washington at an encampment two blocks north of the White House.
President Obama describes the protests as a left-wing Tea Party, but that's far from clear. Here's protestor Ashley Lowe.
ASHLEY LOWE: At this point, we're staying away from political actions and really focusing on building awareness.
LIASSON: Unlike the Tea Party, which was willing to walk precincts and field candidates in a successful effort to push the Republican Party to the right, Occupy Wall Street doesn't want to get involved in electoral politics, at least not yet. Even so, former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston thinks the protests represent a force Democrats should try to harness.
BILL GALSTON: We're having a populist revolt now, because the people who soared off into the economic stratosphere, during the past two decades, did not discharge their responsibilities to the broader society. And I think President Obama has everything to gain and nothing to lose by articulating that basic truth.
LIASSON: But another centrist Democrat, Matt Bennett of the group Third Way, isn't so sure.
MATT BENNETT: When political parties get close to angry populist movements, bad things tend to happen. It certainly has happened to Democrats before. So we're a little bit worried about how Democrats can embrace some of the themes of the Occupy Wall Street folks, without really embracing the movement itself.
LIASSON: Bennett wants to avoid having Democrats tied to the excesses of the fringe of the Occupy Wall Street protests - the way the party was tied for decades to the excesses of the anti-war movement. And Republicans see that opportunity.
House majority leader Eric Cantor has called Occupy Wall Street growing mobs. Right wing talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have made similar charges.
GLENN BECK: The violent left is coming to our streets. All of our streets...
RUSH LIMBAUGH: This is Obama's protest to counter the Tea Party. They're jealous. The Democrats are so jealous of Tea Party they can't see straight.
LIASSON: If Occupy Wall Street had an agenda, they might be able to bring their grassroots energy to the Democrats, the way the Tea Party did for the GOP. But first, President Obama would have to win them back. He told Jay Leno that if people felt they were getting a fair shake...
OBAMA: Then people won't be occupying the streets because they will have a job and they'll feel like they are able to get ahead. But right now, they're frustrated. And, you know, part of my job over the next year, is to make sure that if they are not seeing it out of Congress, at a minimum, they are seeing out of their president somebody who is going to be fighting for them.
LIASSON: Yesterday, President Obama took on one of the demonstrators' issues, announcing that some student loans can be refinanced sooner than originally planned. That should appeal to some of the protesters, young people saddled with mountains of college debt and no jobs.
But when it comes to Wall Street, the balancing act for Mr. Obama hasn't been easy. He's oscillated between bashing Wall Street and accommodating it.
GALSTON: The most successful Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, managed to channel populist energy and anger without pandering to it or succumbing to it politically. And that is the challenge for a leader like Barack Obama.
LIASSON: So far, President Obama has had the worst of all worlds, with much of Wall Street convinced he's anti-business and the protestors convinced he's in bed with the banks. One demonstrator in Washington even held up a sign reading: BHO Is No FDR.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.
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