Left finds mojo in Wall Street protests

The Occupy Wall Street protests have energized liberals in Congress and all but silenced the left’s criticism of President Obama.

Liberals who have felt scorned and overlooked by the White House say they are rejuvenated by the protests launched from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, and hope that they provide Obama and liberal causes with new impetus and vigor.

“For those of us that have been taking those positions for a long time, it is a confidence booster, and I think that makes us a little more assertive,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC).

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Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has fiercely criticized the White House in the past for not pursuing immigration reform, said: “I think the president’s come a long way. I’m delighted to work with him.”

The comments are a remarkable turnaround from earlier this year, when Gutierrez and Grijalva were among the liberals on Capitol Hill most frustrated with Obama.

Many House Democrats felt burned by the summer’s debt-ceiling deal, which focused on spending cuts and not new taxes on businesses and the wealthy. They already had been roiled last December by an agreement between the White House and Republicans that extended the Bush-era tax cuts.

During the debt fight, Grijalva said Obama gave up far too much ground, and argued that working families and progressives were “thrown under the bus” in the final deal.

And Gutierrez suggested in the spring that he might not back Obama’s reelection efforts because he was frustrated with how the White House was handling immigration issues.

“I want to support Barack Obama for reelection,” Gutierrez told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on April 18. “But the lack of progress on immigration reform and the lack of action that Barack Obama, our president, has [taken] is really making that job difficult for me.”

Now some of the same lawmakers say they and the president are unifying. They point to the protest movement as a reason.

“You know what? We’re coming together,” said Gutierrez, who has praised the administration for a new immigration enforcement policy that puts its primary focus on deporting illegal immigrants who commit other crimes. “Hey, maybe the protesters unified the Democratic Party.”

Ever since Republicans stormed to major gains in the 2010 midterm elections, the White House has been seen, especially to the distaste of many liberals in Congress, as going out of its way to appeal to the centrists.

But since September, Obama has adopted a more populist streak, to the delight of liberals.

Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, described the president’s $447 billion jobs proposal, which would be paid for by new taxes on the wealthy, as a “turning point.”

“What you’re seeing is some fight in the president,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “It’s a very welcome sight for many members in Congress.”

The highly visible public outcry for longtime liberal causes has bolstered hopes on the left that the political tide is turning against the Tea Party and Republicans in Congress.

“To the extent that there’s been tension with the president … part of the reason is that the president’s had a hard time moving his agenda through a recalcitrant Congress,” said Lee of the AFL-CIO, which supports the protests. “If this kind of movement can help get politicians to do the right thing, then that should help address some of those tensions.”

She added that the movement provides a much-needed megaphone for liberal causes, serving as a counterweight to already well-amplified Republican arguments.

“The Republican mantra has been ‘no tax increases, let’s do it all with cuts,’” she said. “What you’re hearing from the Wall Street protests is ‘tax the wealthy, tax the corporations.’”

Conservative criticism of the protests has also helped to restore solidarity between liberals and Obama.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been soliciting signatures for a petition supporting the protest, while at the same time hammering House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for calling them “mobs.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the majority leader’s comments, and Cantor later backed away from his language, saying the protesters were “justifiably frustrated.”

To be sure, there are still tensions between liberals and the president.

The White House’s decision to order the Environmental Protection Agency to halt plans for stricter rules on smog in the ozone rankled environmental groups and their supporters in Congress.

Other Democrats are frustrated with the administration’s response to the ongoing mortgage crisis.

The White House has not embraced the Occupy Wall Street protests — which are, after all, critical of many of Obama’s own policies.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently was pressed several times by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to endorse the protests, but he opted to confine himself to more general comments about how the demonstrations showed declining confidence in the political system.

That might be fine with the protest movement, whose leaders have not welcomed explicit Democratic support. And Democrats say they are content to leave the protesters alone.

“The last thing they need is members of Congress telling them what they’re doing or how to do it,” said Welch, who nonetheless said the cause is “extremely helpful.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the CPC, gave an audible sigh of relief when asked if he felt refreshed by the movement.

“I have been down to the Occupy Minnesota movement and I plan on going to the Occupy D.C. movement, but I’m not going to ask for the microphone,” he said. “I’m not going to try to tell them to go get together a four-point plan. I’m going to be talking to them about our country.”