WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans alike are struggling to make sense of the Wall Street protests and figure out how to respond to the growing nationwide movement a month after young people pitched a tent in front of the New York Stock Exchange and began demonstrating against economic inequality.
The political establishment's quandary centers on this question: Will the protests have long-lasting political consequences or are they simply a temporary reflection of voter frustration with the economy?
Democrats have been largely supportive of the so-called Occupy Wall Street movement, which has drawn attention to the economic concerns of the country's middle class, Wall Street greed and high unemployment. The protesters have referred to themselves as the "99 percent," or the vast majority of Americans who do not fall into the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.
The spontaneous protests have taken root in New York's Zuccotti Park and spread to other U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, at a time when President Barack Obama's poll numbers have declined and Democrats have privately grown wary that they may be suffering from an enthusiasm gap compared with Republicans.
With the focus on the middle class, some Democrats say the protests could amplify the party's message leading up to the 2012 elections. But others caution that they should not try to co-opt the movement, which includes many protesters who have criticized Obama's handling of big banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
"The people are raising serious concerns ... they have every reason to be angry," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who recently visited a protest in his home state. "My advice to any elected official is don't go down there and try to take over, don't ask for the microphone. Just listen to the people."
Said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.: "This is not something you can exploit politically because you cannot control it."
Obama struck a sympathetic tone last week, saying "people are frustrated, and the people are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works." But he reiterated that the nation needs a "strong, effective financial sector in order for us to grow."
On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told business leaders in midtown Manhattan that the protests "ought to be a reminder to all of us that we have a great deal of work to do to live up to the expectations of the American people."
Other Democrats have spoken in support of the protesters, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, the fourth highest-ranking House Democrat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' fundraising arm, began circulating a petition on Monday asking people to state that they "stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests."
Several protests are planned this weekend in the U.S., Canada and Europe, as well as in Asia and Africa. Plans to clean up the New York plaza where protesters have camped out was postponed early Friday, a boost to demonstrators who had worried it was the first step in evicting them.
In some ways, the movement reflects the early days of the tea party, a populist reaction against the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, the bank and auto bailouts and Obama's health care plan. While tea party activists eventually became a key part of the Republican Party and fueled a GOP takeover of the House in 2010, it remains unclear if the Wall Street protesters will become a potent force in electoral politics.
Republicans were critical of the movement but have shifted their tone in recent days.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he was concerned about the "growing mobs" occupying Wall Street and U.S. cities but then changed course, saying the protesters were "justifiably frustrated." He urged elected officials to refrain from "the pitting of Americans against Americans."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even used the protesters' language during a recent town hall meeting in New Hampshire, saying he doesn't "stay up nights worrying" about the top 1 percent. "I worry about the 99 percent in America," Romney said. "I want America, once again, to be the best place in the world to be middle-class."
During Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., drew a distinction between "left-wing agitators" and "sincere middle-class people who, frankly, are very close to the tea party people and actually care."
Liberal Democrats think the movement draws bright lines between Democrats and Republicans, arguing that the Republican presidential candidates have uniformly supported tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. The growth of the movement has prompted speculation about what role the protests could play in the fall debate in Congress on the economy and spending — and whether Obama should try to meet with the protesters as a way to show that he is listening to them.
"It would be a super bold move on his part. I can't imagine his political advisers ever telling him to do it," said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. "But there are voices down there with important perspectives that have mostly not been heard in American politics and the president, just going there, would open up some spaces for those (voices)."
Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who has helped organize an effort by liberal activists and unions to recapture the American Dream, said the movement "is about a wholesale political failure of the entire political class and the financial elite to respond to the American people. That creates opportunities and dangers for all politicians."
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas