GOP leaders respond to public fears, street protests

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Top Republicans are easing down attacks on the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in part because they want to highlight their recognition of the public’s growing economic worries.

“I worry about the 99 percent in America,” Gov. Mitt Romney said during an Monday campaign event in New Hampshire. “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my own view is, boy I understand how those people feel … The people in this country are upset,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jon Huntsman made sure to indicate his concerns, while distancing himself from the protestors. “Some of what they are talking about, I think, many Americans would be in some harmony with,” he said during a stop in New Hampshire.

The new caution reflects the GOP’s recognition of the public’s worries, as well as their mixed — and often inconsistent — support for higher taxes and regulation of Wall Street and the wealthy.

Democrats say they see political opportunity in the protests, which involve a mix of widespread public worries and small-scale progressive activism. Top Democratic politicians have begun endorsing the protests and are using them to energize their dispirited base, despite the risk that unruly progressives could frighten or alienate middle-class voters.

The president’s jobs bill is also intended to address the public’s expanding worries about the stalled economy. “Right now, our economy needs a jolt,” Obama declared at a speech in Pittsburgh, Pa., which was advertised an an effort to boost his one-year $47 billion stimulus and jobs bill. Republicans who voted against the measure, he said, should be asked “what’s wrong with folks who made millions or billions of dollars paying a little more … so that our kids can get the education they deserve?”

Few or no Republican will vote for the bill, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told MSNBC Tuesday. “We’ll get virtually no Republicans, and that’s the kind of contrast the public is beginning to see,” he said. (RELATED: Tea party groups criticize media coverage of ‘Occupy Wall Street’)

Polling data shows public worries are increasing. “Six in 10 predict the economy a year from now will be the same or worse than today, a downturn from the public’s views last year and the year before,” said a USA Today/Gallup poll published Sept. 20.

On Oct. 6, House Speaker John Boehner sent a warning to fellow Republicans about the public’s worries.

“The American people are concerned about our country … The concern that I’ve seen over the last year, frankly, is turning to what I would describe as fear,” he said at an event organized by National Journal.

Tuesday, Boehner’s staff followed up with a blog post showing the high level of unemployment among African Americans and Latinos. “Republicans’ Plan for America’s Job Creators contains a number of solutions designed to remove government barriers to small business job creation, and the House has passed more than a dozen jobs bills to this effect … [but] more needs to be done,” said the post.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also broadcast his concern in an Oct. 7 article in Forbes: “The unemployment rate for 20-24 year olds is 14.7 percent … those who are lucky enough to find a job are often under-employed or have to take temporary or unpaid jobs,” he wrote.

Many of the people at the protests, and others watching from homes across the country, are young people who took out debts of tens of thousands of dollars to earn university degrees that are worth little in a high-tech international economy.

More than 1,000 people, including young people, showcase their fear on websites. “Higher education is a bubble, run by the same kind of people who control our banks, our homes, our health … There are NO jobs waiting for me when I get my [science] doctoral degree,” said one unnamed woman at the wearethe99percent.tumblr.com site.

“I am a 28-year-old college student with 24k in school debt and a useless degree. I understand that I made the choices that got me here. However, my choices were led by the FAILED INSTITUTIONS that make up this nation,” said a man’s testimonial at the site.

Priebus is trying to reach those voters. “For these increasingly disaffected young voters, the Republican Party will offer an alternative … [so] we have to take the fight to traditionally democratic strongholds, places like college campuses, and engage today’s young voters,” he wrote in Forbes.

“America’s youth need more than slogans this election; they demand results … 2012 is about substance, and Republicans will provide it,” he wrote.

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