The “Occupy Wall Street” protests, railing against corporate greed with street corner synecdoche, mean different things to different people.
That includes politicians, who are using the weeks-long demonstrations as a reflection of their own ideologies — or perhaps better described, stump speeches. It’s also a reflection of politicians trying to avoid, or harness, the still-simmering anger at America’s financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis whose effects are still felt today, and whose effects will probably still be felt on Election Day in 2012.
Consider Rep. William L. Owens’ take on the protests, which included an affiliated protest at a university in Canton:
“One of the things they clearly are concerned about is the issue of jobs,” Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, told me. “Many of these folks are unemployed and quite disturbed about it.”
But, never one for fiery or combative rhetoric and very much one to talk a lot about jobs, Mr. Owens declined to vilify Wall Street itself, which, by name itself, the protestors seem to be doing.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure I would draw all the conclusions you just did,” he told me when I postulated that the protests were a result of disgust with perceived social injustices and Wall Street greed (I asked three times). “I think what’s driving this activity, from what I’ve read in the media, is the lack of jobs, and the belief that some of that is growing out of the actions that were taken that led to the 2008 financial crisis.”
Consider, too, Mr. Owens’ opponent come November 2012, Republican Matthew A. Doheny, who once worked in the very place that the protestors now occupy.
“While the name and the focus might be Wall Street, I think people are more frustrated with the president and Congress and their collective inability to address the nation’s problems,” said Mr. Doheny, for whom President Obama and Congress are near-constant targets.
Mr. Doheny frequently points to his business experience as reasons voters should support him over Mr. Owens. Could that be politically harmful, or helpful?
“I’m dead-set against any government bailouts, whether it’s for banks to the home mortgage companies and anything in between,” said Mr. Doheny, a former portfolio manager at Deutsche Bank Securities. “I think people are just downright frustrated and angry.”
Like Mr. Owens, Mr. Doheny said that the protestors lack a coherent ideology when asked whether they’d really agree with him.
“I think if you look at some of the things, it’s almost anti-capitalism, anti-free market. And I’m dead set against that,” Mr. Doheny said. “They might be focused on Wall Street, but I think it’s a much deeper strain. They’re frustrated with the president, Congress, and they realize we’ve been in a downturn.”
Mr. Owens, who attended college in the Vietnam era, said he’s never attended a protest. He said he doesn’t consider them effective.
“They’re not designed to have a conversation,” Mr. Owens said. “That’s not what that’s about. What I want to do is sit down and have conversations with people so I can get the facts.”
Mr. Doheny said he isn’t sure if he’s ever attended one, but noted that he grew up in the docile years of President Ronald Reagan.
He was more bullish on whether protests are good for discourse.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That is the First Amendment right there. That is your ability to come together as a group, that’s what makes America great.”
(Full disclosure: He also asked me if I ever attended a protest, which I did, in 2007, against the Iraq War. My views have very much moderated since that trip to Washington, D.C., but even then, what drove me at the time was displeasure with how the war was being executed, and my questioning of whether it should have been waged in the first place. But, you're your own worst enemy, because I supported the war at first. Hindsight is 20/20, and I'm now a perfectly objective journalist.)
OK, enough about me!
Mr. Obama was more critical of Wall Street than Mr. Owens, his Democratic colleague, at a news conference Thursday.
“I think it expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country ... and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place,” he said of the protests, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, also weighed in on the matter at a news conference in Albany. His response was similar to Mr. Owens’.
“The voices that are frustrated with the lack of jobs, we understand that,” Mr. Cuomo said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to do economic development and create jobs. The frustration with unemployment, everyone can understand that. The vehicle itself, the protest, that’s what people do at different times.”
Mr. Cuomo was asked what he felt about the protests, given that businesses on Wall Street make up between 20 and 25 percent of the state’s revenue.
“To the extent that there were bad acts, we want them punished on Wall Street and anywhere else,” Mr. Cuomo said. “At the same time, it’s a major economic engine for this state.”