President-elect raises bar for political strategy
President-elect Barack Obama’s victory — watched throughout the world and hailed as a turning point in the direction of the country — marked a generational shift on a number of levels, from the way that campaigns raise money, to the engagement of hundreds of thousands of new and younger voters.
But his entire candidacy and campaign also signaled a sea change in politicians’ use of the media.
Beyond Tuesday’s historic vote that puts the first African-American in the White House, Obama changed things in the way he galvanized his base of supporters. His image is that of someone who’s in touch with people. A big part of that was tapping into popular culture beyond the news media, as he connected with audiences on latenight talkshows, “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” and, before his campaign even began, “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
A 30-minute Obama infomercial that ran last week combined campaign propaganda with the messaging techniques of “Extreme Home Makeover.” More than any other candidate, he harnessed the power of the Internet. Using sophisticated means of branding and advertising, he cast himself as an agent of change, literally representing a new movement in politics that seeks to unite the country and address a mountain of challenges.
Never before have media and entertainment been so emotionally invested in a candidate.
It’s debatable whether Obama will cozy up to showbiz in the way that JFK and Bill Clinton did. Hollywood and its businesses don’t seem a top priority to him. But that’s OK with Hollywood. Like many other Americans, showbiz people liked his message and embraced Obamamania which — though mocked by the candidate’s rivals — spoke to a desire to turn the page on the Bush years. Those in the industry felt like many other Americans that the country is on the wrong track.
“There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can’t solve every problem,” Obama told supporters gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park. “But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.”
Hollywood made its bet on his candidacy, and played a big part in elevating his status to more than a mere candidate but into a pop culture icon, from a widely distributed Shepard Fairey portrait to a virally spread Internet musicvideo from Will.i.am capitalizing on Obama’s catchphrase, “Yes We Can.”
The entertainment industry infused TV shows and Web videos with “get out the vote” efforts, many aimed at increasing youth turnout that would benefit the candidate. In the final weeks of the race, the Web was showered with Obama-endorsement videos, including one in which Ron Howard reunited with Mayberry castmate Andy Griffith and “the Fonz” Henry Winkler.
When Obama took the stage at Grant Park, the crowd of 100,000-plus people included many supporters from showbiz, including Brad Pitt and Winfrey. (Her endorsement long before the primaries began translated into huge crowds at subsequent rallies and an infusion of cash from a well-attended fund-raiser at her Montecito, Calif., estate.) She walked through the crowd to the stage, and Spike Lee got a front-row vantage point to film Obama’s victory speech. His running mate Joe Biden and their families joined him onstage after the speech.
“Everywhere you went, people were excited, but nobody let it pop until they knew it was real,” producer Joe Pichirallo said from the celebration. Pichirallo was one of the few Hollywood supporters of Biden during his presidential bid.
“What is exciting is the question of how do we get real change, and that will require disrupting that red state, blue state map, and Obama has really done it.”
In New York, Harvey Weinstein was hosting an election-night party with Georgette Mosbacher, and told Daily Variety, “This is a great night for the country. Obama is going to have a positive effect on the economy. The stock market averages will go up around the world.”
In Los Angeles, crowds packed the main ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel, as the queue to get into Obama’s California celebration stretched into the upper floors in lobby of the hotel. Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti led the crowd in a chant of “Yes We Did,” and “O-ba-ma.”
Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel, who had backed Obama from the start of his bid, was at his home watching the returns with his family, but was too caught up in the emotion of the moment to talk.
Celebrating at a restaurant, William Morris’ Jim Wiatt, who also backed his candidacy from the beginning, said, “This is a great day for America and the world. It brings hope that it will bring change, and it’s what we all needed. In our lifetime, to have this happen — an African-American elected president — is an amazing triumph for all of us. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. As for charisma, he is the closest to Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. This guy is a game-changer.”
Before the polls closed in the West, anchors and analysts endeavored to be cautious — as they had pledged in pre-election interviews — but several had a difficult time not referring to an Obama presidency as if it were a fait accompli. Fox News’ Brit Hume, for example, gently chided Morton Kondracke not to get ahead of the discussion in the half-hour before any of the state voting had concluded.
And by 8:14 p.m. Eastern, Fox News’ conservative commentator William Kristol issued a heavy sigh — after New Hampshire went to Obama, and Elizabeth Dole was projected to lose her North Carolina senate seat — and said, “This is going to be a bad night for Republicans.”
But when the Western polls closed at 8 p.m. Pacific time, the networks unanimously declared that Obama had been elected, cutting to extended scenes of New Year’s Eve-style jubilation in Chicago and New York.
Sen. John McCain, with running mate Sarah Palin by his side, conceded in a speech in his home state of Arizona shortly thereafter.
Of Obama, Hume said: “This is an enormously appealing human being,” adding that efforts to paint Obama as a radical “simply didn’t comport” with the candidate’s personality and style.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow teared up discussing the vote. On Fox News, Karl Rove stated that “we’ve had an African-American first family” for many years, citing “The Cosby Show” as an example of the widespread acceptance of blacks in U.S. society.
In terms of style, every network has now borrowed from sports coverage with some form of touch-screen graphics for their analysts, creating its own sort of dizzying visual arms race. In the most science-fiction-like, surreal, “Minority Report”-type flourish, CNN even featured correspondent Jessica Yellin and Will.i.am by hologram — super-imposing her glowing, otherworldly image into its studio set.
While MSNBC’s opinion heavyweights Keith Olbermann and Maddow were in the thick of its coverage — despite the shift to move the former out of the anchor chair — Fox primetime hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity were nowhere to be found during the early portion of the evening.
The election came after a campaign for the ages, in length and scope, producing record turnout throughout the country and driving up ratings for any number of media outlets willing to hang a shingle of political coverage.
Obama’s victory was unlikely on just about every level, even among the entertainment industry’s savvy political class.
Two years ago, Obama was hardly the favorite for 2008 when he made the rounds to various top donors, ostensibly as part of a tour for his .book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Political consultant Andy Spahn, who works with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, set up meetings that month with his clients and others.
Having met Obama when he was a state senator, at the urging of Christie Hefner and Rahm Emanuel, Spahn had worked with the candidate before, as Obama had raised money in Hollywood for his 2004 U.S. Senate run, including at an event hosted by Michael and Jamie Lynton. But this time, it was clear that Obama was mulling a bid for the presidency to go up against Hillary Clinton, the perceived front runner whose support was thought to be far reaching.
Soon after it became clear that Obama would enter the race, the DreamWorks trio of Katzenberg, David Geffen and Spielberg agreed to host what would become the candidate’s first major fund-raiser in late February 2007. The event seemed to draw every major studio and agency head, along with a bevy of stars, and represented the first real sign that Hollywood would not automatically back Clinton.
“That event went a long way toward presenting him as a viable nominee,” Spahn said.
Many stalwarts of L.A.’s political establishment, like Ron Burkle, Rob Reiner and even Spielberg, backed Clinton, although they offered their support once Obama secured the nomination.
Obama chose as his Southern California finance co-chairs Wild Brain CEO Charlie Rivkin and music executive Nicole Avant, who had worked on previous campaigns but were relatively new to leadership roles in the financing of political campaigns. With them were two finance consultants, Jeremy Bernard and Rufus Gifford. Together, they helped Obama raise more than $7.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, beating Clinton in the primary and well exceeding the amount raised by McCain in the general election.
The campaign, however, was cautious about how they used Winfrey, who herself took flack from some of her viewers for making the her first-time endorsement. Perhaps fearful of overdoing her celebrity, she appeared few other times on the campaign trail, and kept a low profile at the Democratic National Convention. “I cried my eyelashes off,” she told reporters who had caught up with her after Obama’s acceptance speech.
Within the tight-knit entertainment industry, Obama’s campaign may be most remembered for bringing in so many new people into the process, well beyond fund-raising donor lists. Performers like Scarlett Johansson canvassed in states like Iowa and Ohio, African-American stars like Samuel L. Jackson hosted fund-raisers and industry professionals formed a grassroots org called Generation Obama, led by Haroon Saleem, an executive at Walden Media.
Saleem, along with political consultant Bim Ayandele, organized events like a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” followed by a panel afterward in which the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Richard Donner tied Jefferson Smith’s idealism to that of Obama.
It is that sense of optimism that will be most at risk as Obama faces a wrath of extraordinary problems, decisions that are bound to leave some of his most ardent supporters disappointed and others with unmet expectations.
Obama will enter office promising a new level of political discourse, elevating the state of debate to something other than left vs. right, and has often cast the religious right against the Hollywood and media elites.
President Bush shunned the entertainment business for much of his tenure, and many in the industry unleashed its creative power to cast his presidency as nothing other than a failure. Obama surely will get a different type of treatment, but what lies ahead is just how much he can calm all the voices and actually bridge such a great cultural divide.
The Norman Lear Center’s Martin Kaplan, with a career in entertainment and politics, cautions against predictions, especially on whether the satirical comedy that has flourished in the Bush era will wither in an Obama presidency. “Pop culture is a business, and no matter who’s president, the people who finance that business will keep trying to guess what the audience wants, and they’ll likely have no more or no less success doing that than they have in the past.”
For the moment, however, Obama offers something the country has been yearning for: A look not backward to the mistakes and battles of the past, but to a new way forward.
(Brian Lowry, Cynthia Littleton, Patrick Frater, Dade Hayes and William Triplett contributed to this report.)