Will Hollywood Embrace Obama Again?

Obama and OprahHollywood, as everyone knows, loves the Next
Big Thing. And four years ago, Barack Obama was certainly that: a
political supernova, the equivalent of a breakout movie star.


“He is `The One,'”
declared Oprah Winfrey, his biggest and most influential celebrity
champion. “The best candidate I’ve ever seen,” pronounced George
Clooney. Halle Berry said she’d “collect paper cups off the ground to
make his pathway clear.” Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am chimed in
with the famous “Yes We Can” video. And so on.

But
you can’t be the Next Big Thing twice. And so, with the 2012 vote less
than a year away, there’s clearly a different mood in heavily Democratic
Hollywood: less gushing, not to mention snippets of criticism, most
prominently from actor Matt Damon, who campaigned for Obama last time
but now makes no secret of his disillusionment.

“I
think he misinterpreted his mandate,” Damon said earlier this year, and
then recently told Elle magazine the country would have been better off
with a one-term president with guts (he used a much saltier word).

But
while the adulation of the 2008 election may be significantly muted
among Hollywood liberals, as with liberals elsewhere, Obama supporters
say that’s only natural, given the circumstances. Fundraisers there say
that events have been selling out and there’s plenty of enthusiasm.

Most
importantly, they add, the nation’s attention has been on the battling
Republicans. Soon, the choice will get starker and the Democratic base
will be energized, they argue.

“The moment the
Republicans have their nominee is when you’re going to see anyone still
on the fence jump in,” says Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles-based
communications strategist and Democratic fundraiser. “Once you have a
head-to-head matchup, the contrast will be grand.”

Numbers
compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show that
while overall political contributions were up in Hollywood for the first
three quarters of this year compared with the same period four years
ago, contributions to Democrats were slightly down.

According
to the group, the movie, television and recording industries – a large
chunk of which is Hollywood – gave $17,639,267 in the first three
quarters to federal candidates and parties, with 71 percent going to the
Democrats and 29 percent to Republicans, as opposed to $15,642,561 four
years ago, when 77 percent went to the Democrats and 23 percent to
Republicans.

But numbers for the Democrats
were down by more than $2.5 million from four years ago – $9,249,303
this year compared with $11,966,077 four years ago.

Obama’s
fundraisers note that four years ago, Obama was locked in a tense
primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton – and primaries drive early
fundraising.

“A re-election is always
different,” says Andy Spahn, a longtime political adviser to one of the
top Democratic fundraisers in the nation, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey
Katzenberg, along with his partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

He calls the current mood among Hollywood Democrats a “matured enthusiasm,” but says support is strong.

Though
Damon’s remarks about the president have been the most pointed, other
celebrities have expressed disappointment, or at least mild
disillusionment.

“I love the president like
most of us,” Sean “Diddy” Combs told Source magazine this year. “I just
want the president to do better.”

And
will.i.am, creator of that viral video that ended with the word “HOPE,”
told The New York Times earlier this year: “I don’t want to hope
anymore.” Asked if he was disappointed in Obama, he said: “I don’t feel
disappointed. I feel like, Argggh! Speak louder! I feel like, Do
something!”

What about core Obama celebrity
supporters Clooney and Winfrey? Far from being disillusioned with Obama,
Clooney said recently: “I’m disillusioned by the people who are
disillusioned by Obama.”

“Democrats eat their
own,” the actor said. “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking
up for the people whom you’ve elected.” He went on to list the
accomplishments of the Obama administration, wondering why Democrats
weren’t selling them better.

And Winfrey,
credited with helping Obama win over many women in 2008, told Politico
in August: “I’m in his corner for whatever he needs me to do.”

There
already have been plenty of celebrities hosting or showing up at Obama
fundraising events. Actress Eva Longoria hosted one at the home of
Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Lady Gaga attended a September
fundraiser at the home of Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl
Sandberg. Alicia Keys performed at a New York fundraiser.

And
in the summer, film executive Harvey Weinstein held a Manhattan event
sprinkled with celebs including Keys, Jimmy Fallon, and Gwyneth Paltrow
and husband Chris Martin. A 50th birthday-themed fundraiser in Chicago
featured performances by Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock and the band OK
Go.

Of course, celebrity support isn’t always
a win-win for a candidate. Just as Obama’s opponents in 2008 tried to
use his taste for arugula to paint him as elitist, they tried to use his
celebrity connections to imply he was lightweight, all pizazz and no
substance – most pointedly in an ad tenuously linking him to Paris
Hilton and Britney Spears.

The tactic seemed
to scare Obama’s campaign enough to downplay the role of celebrities at
the Democratic convention that summer. Will the campaign similarly seek
to downplay the celebrity role this time?

“Celebrities
are helpful in terms of exciting a base,” says Griffin, the fundraiser.
“I don’t think the president will have any shortage of surrogates.”

One
thing is clear: They won’t include Damon, and the president wasn’t shy
about making a few jokes at the actor’s expense back in May, at the
White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

“Matt
Damon said he was disappointed in my performance,” the president noted.
Then he referred to one of Damon’s recent films. “Well, Matt, I just
saw `The Adjustment Bureau,’ so right back atcha, buddy.”

Damon,
whose representatives did not respond to a request for comment, has
given no sign that he plans to do anything as dramatic as switch sides
in November. The real danger, say some Obama supporters, is that
comments like his would lead voters – especially key younger ones – to
stay home.

That’s a threat the president faces in places well beyond Hollywood.

Ken
Sunshine, a prominent public relations consultant who has represented
top entertainers and politicians, thinks that ultimately “the activist
community in entertainment and everywhere else will come home and
support the president’s re-election with the same degree of enthusiasm
as before – if for no other reason than … consider the alternative!”

“But once we help him get re-elected,” Sunshine adds, “then we really hold his feet to the fire in the second term.”

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