Why the Washington Establishment is Heeding Occupy Wall Street

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The running critique of the Occupy Wall Street protests is that they have too many bongo drums and not enough message coherence. But that hasn’t stopped Washington’s elite–Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and President Barack Obama–from all hearing the same, singular message loud and clear.

“I think people are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what’s happening,” Bernanke said at a Wednesday hearing on Capitol Hill. “They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them.”

(PHOTOS: Demonstrators Occupy Wall Street)

On Wednesday, the Atlantic‘s James Bennet asked Geithner if he sympathized with the protests. “I feel a lot of sympathy,” Geithner responded, “for what you might describe as a general sense among Americans [of] whether, you know, we’ve lost a sense of possibility.  And whether after a pretty bad lost decade of interest income growth or fiscal responsibility or other things that like, followed by, you know, a devastating crisis, huge loss of public institutions, people do wonder whether we have the ability to do things that can help the average sense of opportunity in the country.”

On Thursday at the White House, President Obama was asked a similar question. “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place,” Obama said.

(WATCH: Motivations Behind the Wall Street Protests)

After a follow up question, Obama went further. “You know, what I think is that the American people understand that not everybody’s been following the rules,” the President said. “That Wall Street is an example of that; that folks who are working hard every single day, getting up, going to the job, loyal to their companies, that that used to be the essence of the American dream. That’s how you got ahead, the old-fashioned way. And these days, a lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren’t rewarded and a lot of folks who aren’t doing the right thing are rewarded. And that’s going to express itself politically in 2012 and beyond until people feel like once again we’re getting back to some old- fashioned American values.”

Notice anything there? All three men, the very essence of the ruling political elite, are both embracing the basic thrust of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, in their way, trying to channel it. They are not dismissing the crowds as a bunch of trust fund hippies and anarchists, or know-nothings deserving of disdain, as CNN’s Erin Burnett and several Fox News talking heads have done. They are saying this is a legitimate thing. That it makes sense. That it is part of what this country is right now.

There are political reasons for this embrace of populist sentiment, which is by no means limited to a few leaders in Washington. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has climbed on board, and begun to offer unsolicited policy advice. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, praised the protesters after meeting with them outside New York’s City Hall Wednesday. The stakes are high. If the Occupy movement continues to grow, it could be a big asset in 2012 as a mobilizing force for Democrats, as Obama seemed to suggest at his press conference. Like the Tea Party was to Republicans, it would not be an arm of the Democratic party, but a popular grassroots swell shaping the debate.

At the same time, if the Occupy movement directs its ire away from the bankers, corporations and wealthy people that seem now to be their main target, the Democratic party could be hurt. In the end, the Tea Party movement ended up functioning very much as a rebellion within the Republican Party. Attempts to start a third party, or to run third-party candidates outside the GOP nomination process, never really got off the ground. And though there was much criticism of Republicans at Tea Party rallies, the desire to unseat Democrats always loomed as a larger, more important goal. There is no certainty that the Occupy movement, which seems to have a much younger demographic, will break the same way.

(READ: What Occupy Wall Street Wants: The Unofficial Demand List)

But if anything, the organizers of the Occupy movement should be heartened by the latest outpouring of sympathy from establishment figures. The protesters, who can still be counted by the hundreds in most gatherings, have already shifted the national conversation. We are no longer talking about government spending and deficits. The focus is on income inequality and unpunished culpability of corporate elite for the last decade of dysfunction.

Much like the Tea Party movement, this is a testament to the American political system, which has done little to help its reputation in recent months. It is still possible for a few people, peacefully demonstrating, to get the attention of the entire country, to have their views heard and debated. Say what you will about the media elites or the entrenched powers in Washington, but they will still respond when people assemble in the streets.

READ: Who Is Occupy Wall Street?