President Obama returned to Los Angeles fund-raising circles for the first time since taking office, appearing at a duo of Hollywood-centric events for the Democratic National Committee that sold out despite donor fatigue and a faltering economy.
Obama’s visit to the Beverly Hilton was met with a series of demonstrations outside, the largest of which urged the president to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and to support same-sex marriage rights.
But the protesters created little if any disturbance at the event itself, where a heavy entertainment industry presence including Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ari Emanuel and Casey Wasserman were expected to help bring in more than $3 million to the DNC, which is trying to erase a fund-raising gap with the Republican National Committee this year.
The more exclusive of the events was a late-afternoon dinner, where couples ponied up $30,400 each at smaller gathering that allowed for photo ops and some face time. Among the 250 or so who attended were stars like Seth Rogen, Ron Howard, Kiefer Sutherland and Tyler Perry and politically active industry types like Chris Albrecht, Bruce Cohen, Bryan Lourd. Peter and Megan Chernin, Ron and Kelly Meyer, Skip Paul and Alan and Cindy Horn. Also present were Nicole Avant and Charles Rivkin, the Obama campaign’s Southern California finance co-chairs, along with John Emerson, chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center.
Hundreds of other donors paid far less for a general reception, where Jennifer Hudson and Earth, Wind & Fire and the Crenshaw High School Choir were among the performers before a crowd that included Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish, Zachary Quinto and Jamie Foxx. Perhaps reflecting the need to open up the event to a wider array of donors in tight times, tickets originally set at $2,500-per-person were re-priced at $1,000 per person and $2,500 for VIP seating.
Joining Obama were Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), the latter of whom was making his first appearance at a Democratic fund-raiser since switching parties.
In speeches at both events, Obama outlined accomplishments of the administration’s first four months, including his economic recovery plan and lifting the ban on stem cell research funding. He received warm applause when he talked about his nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.
“I would put these first four months up against any prior administration since FDR,” Obama said at his dinner speech, adding that he is “not satisfied. I’m confident in the future, but I’m not yet content.”
Obama didn’t directly address the nature of the demonstrators outside, other than to note that he heard what one said as his motorcade pulled into the hotel grounds.
“One of them said, ‘Obama, keep your promise,’ and I thought, ‘That’s fair.’ I don’t know which promise he was talking about,” Obama said to some laughter, before noting that his administration has set out to do what was promised during the campaign.
Across the street from the hotel, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Trenton Drive, some 300 demonstrators — from groups including the Courage Campaign and the Stonewall Democratic Club — chanted slogans like “Equal Rights Now!” Lt. Dan Choi, a military linguist facing expulsion after he declared his sexual orientation on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” addressed the gathering as cars honked their horns in passing by. Some demonstrators cautioned that they were not opposed to Obama’s administration, they hoped the visibility would help sway the president to take bolder action.
It was a sentiment reflected by some in the hotel itself. Political consultant Chad Griffin said he and Cohen had a brief conversation with the president in which they urged him to support marriage equality.
Obama’s appearance was in the same hotel where, more than two years ago, his fledgling campaign staged an initial fund-raiser hosted by Katzenberg, Spielberg and David Geffen, kicking off what turned into a heated battle with Hillary Clinton for show biz dollars.
After Katzenberg introduced the president at the dinner, Obama said, “If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be in the White House.”
Obama did repeat a message that he expressed to the entertainment community at previous events, to “make movies that inspire us” and to tell stories “that are not being told.” He cited “Milk,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” as examples.
Although the event was aimed at the Los Angeles donor community, Obama’s willingness to appear at an event so linked to entertainment — and by extension celebrity — reflects a greater confidence by the White House that GOP attacks on Hollywood aren’t as potent as they once were.
On Tuesday, Obama appeared at a fund-raiser at Caesars Palace for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election fight next year, that featured entertainers Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow. As it turned out, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a Web ad the next hitting Reid for the “blowout” Hollywood party. Obama wasn’t even mentioned.