As President Obama returns to Hollywood circles on Thursday for his first re-election fund-raising swing, it’s not difficult to find supporters expressing frustration or disappointment privately and publicly.
What has not materialized, however, is a sense that showbizzers will be looking elsewhere.
Even as such high-profile figures as Matt Damon and Michael Moore draw headlines in their pronouncements of dashed hopes, the trio of events Obama has on tap are said to be selling briskly.
The lack of a Democratic or third-party alternative, and a Republican field that could very well veer even further to the right, will only bolster Obama’s prospects, say his longtime supporters. The president’s deficit-reduction speech last week, in which he defended New Deal and Great Society programs, seems to have pleased many progressives and reassured them that Obama will be able to convey the stark differences between the two parties going into 2012.
“Everybody’s going to jump onboard,” predicted Heather Thomas, the actress-activist who holds a regular monthly gathering of progressives at her Santa Monica home. “What’s the alternative?”
While she says there has been disappointment on issues like the failure to pass a comprehensive climate bill, there’s also a sentiment that “he inherited the most heinous mess in the world” and has been up against “ruthless” opposition.
On Thursday, Obama will trek to Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City for a late-afternoon backlot rally with a capacity of 3,000 and Jamie Foxx on the bill as a “special guest”; tickets range in price from $100 to $2,500 for VIP seating. That will be followed by a much smaller dinner on the lot for some 60 people, with tickets priced at $35,800 per person; the president is expected to go from table to table to spend face time with donors.
A second dinner will follow at the Brentwood restaurant Tavern. Among those expected are such moguls and major L.A. figures as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Lynton, Berry Gordy, Elon Musk and Russell Goldsmith, as well as the two Southern California finance co-chairs for the Democratic National Committee, Capital Group’s John Emerson and Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon.
“Like anything else, there were these incredible expectations where people had to come to terms with the reality of the challenges of being president,” said producer Joe Pichirallo. “But I think people are coming around,” he said, especially as Republicans in Congress “overreach.”
On the money front, Hollywood has proven to be unfailingly loyal to Democrats — a reason why Los Angeles is among Obama’s first stops for campaign cash. Strikingly, even in last year’s midterms, which saw massive Republican victories, the share of showbiz money going to Democratic candidates actually widened compared to the true blue year of 2006. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Hollywood sources contributed $19.8 million to Democrats vs. $7.9 million to Republicans, a split of 72% to 28%.
It remains to be seen whether Hollywood’s traditional financial support will translate into something larger, as it did in 2008. In that cycle celebrities took to the campaign trail, creative types made their own Obama videos (like Will.i.am’s YouTube sensation “Yes, We Can”) and executives took to canvassing in swing states and working Election Day phone banks.
That level of enthusiasm, which undoubtedly helped drive momentum, will be difficult to replicate, all the more so because Obama will be making presidential decisions during the campaign bound to dismay some of his supporters, like his failure to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
And just as Hollywood can use its high-profile platform to express its support, it also can garner attention for its ambivalence. Last month, Damon, who hit the trail for Obama in 2008, told CNN’s Piers Morgan he thinks Obama “misinterpreted his mandate” and flatly said he wasn’t happy with the job he had done. It also can’t be discounted that Arianna Huffington, who has been at the center of the industry’s salon culture for years, has been among the most vocal critics of his policies on the economy and Afghanistan.
Obama’s position perhaps has some parallels to that of Bill Clinton in his re-election effort of 1996, when he pretty much sailed to victory despite less enthusiasm than in 1992. Hollywood progressives were dismayed by “triangulation,” or a shift to the center right, including Clinton’s support of welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act. Republican rival Bob Dole made some inroads in the entertainment community, but Clinton still dominated fund-raising.
“I think some people are disappointed, especially if they are further to the left than I am,” said producer Mike Medavoy, who along with wife Irena hosted candidate Obama for a 2007 fund-raiser at their home. “I have some disappointments, but they are, in most cases, things that I don’t have all the information about, the inner workings of the political football that is going on. I can’t really feel cheated on them….My sense is that under the conditions he inherited, he has done as well as you could expect.”
He would like to see Obama explain his decision not to close Guantanamo, but added, “The thing that I think most people who support him, and continue to support him, believe is that he is probably one of the smartest people we have had in the White House in a long time. He may not be as politically adept as Bill Clinton, but he is as smart at Bill Clinton.”
Even if Obama’s campaign proves to be a much more traditional and pragmatic election effort, there is some talk of at least trying to mount some grassroots efforts outside the official campaign structure. In 2008, Yosi Sergant enlisted Shepard Fairey to create his iconic “HOPE” poster and later organized artists for exhibitions at the Democratic National Convention and the inauguration. He said he is in the midst of determining what to do this time around, and while he hasn’t agreed with every decision, he said he would “fight tooth and nail” for his reelection. “The alternatives make my head spin,” he said.
Bim Ayandele, among the founders of Generation for Change, an outgrowth of a group of young industry professionals for Obama in 2008, said that they also are figuring what their role will be. He predicted that many of the young supporters who didn’t stay engaged since the last election will reemerge once the Republican primary starts and “the battle gets heated and the rhetoric gets ratcheted up.”