Toy With OWS and the Tea Party at Your Peril

Playing cynical games with these grassroots movements can backfire on leaders in both parties.

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The words "Take Back the American Dream" crudely plastered on the sign held by a protestor reflect real frustration. Another placard simply saying, "Don't Trust the Government" announces heartfelt skepticism. Yet another screaming, "Make GM Pay Taxes" is a virtual anthem for the middle class. Demonstrators cheer as a speaker blasts the bank bailouts of 2008, as well as when he claims banks are reaping huge profits while average Americans suffer under high unemployment and job insecurity. "The president and the Congress failed the American people," another speaker shouts to wild applause.

Before someone starts hurling invectives at the Tea Party, this snapshot of political activism is a composite of occurrences at Occupy Wall Street rallies. Welcome to the New Frontier in American politics. It is raw with emotions, gives voice to the voiceless, has no true political "base" and recognizes no traditional political boundaries, and has already reshaped the electoral fortunes of both political parties.

What both of these movements have come to exemplify is the tempest brewing across the spectrum of American political thought. From the town halls of Middle America to the state capitol steps in Madison, Wis., to Zuccotti Park in New York City, activists are giving voice to their frustrations, anxieties and hopes. But are they speaking for all Americans?

It is true that both movements have rallied citizens around similar themes -- we don't like the direction the country is going, and we don't trust government -- but recent polls are showing that such expressions now have limited appeal, with each movement failing to capture the hearts of Americans.

However, in looking at the OWS and Tea Party manifestations, perhaps it is not so much where you stand philosophically, but rather who is standing next to you politically.

In an Oct. 18 ABC News interview, President Barack Obama openly expressed support for the Occupy Wall Street protests (and even linked them to the Tea Party):

What I've said is that I understand the frustrations that are being expressed in those protests. In some ways, they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party, both on the left and the right. I think people feel separated from their government that the institutions aren't looking out for them. The most important thing we can do right now is -- those of us in leadership -- letting people know that we understand their struggles, we are on their side and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded. [We must assure them] that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don't feel a sense of obligation to their communities and to their companies and to their workers, that those folks aren't rewarded.

That analysis makes sense and strikes a chord, but it wasn't the analysis the president used to express how he felt about the Tea Party in April 2010: "I've been a little amused over the last couple of days where people have been having these rallies about taxes. You would think they would be saying thank you."

Nor was it the analysis used by Vice President Biden when he allegedly commented, "[Tea Partiers] have acted like terrorists," or by Newt Gingrich when he told OWS protesters to "get a job right after you take a bath."

So what is it about these two entities that causes almost convulsive reactions from presumably reasonable people? Politics.