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Latest Column: Obama Seeks the Fountain of Youth

Hollywood showered Barack Obama will campaign cash in 2008, but just as potent was the way the industry’s under-30 set conveyed a sense of cool around the candidate. With the troubled economy, some fatigued supporters and young-voter tune out, the challenge for the campaign will be catching that spark again. That’s my latest column in the print version of Variety, which you can read below.

Obamashirt_300 When President Obama takes another fundraising swing through Hollywood on Monday, with a House of Blues event in which B.o.B and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson are in the bill, he’ll be laying the groundwork for an attempt to restore the youthful passion of hope in an austere era of nope.

In 2008, Hollywood was not merely an ATM for the Democrats but helped inspire the movement around Obama, and nowhere was that more apparent than with the under-30 set, who streamed Will.i.am’s “Yes, We Can” video and slapped Shepard Fairey “Hope” images on their bumpers.

While this generation is less like to be influenced by celebrity than Generation X, “there is a lot to be said about creating a cool aura around Obama,” says Morley Winograd, author with Michael D. Hais of the recently published “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America.” “Millennials are a very consensus-driven generation. It is not so much ‘I will vote for this guy because that celebrity is voting for this guy.’ It is, ‘They like Obama. My friends like Obama. I guess I should go for Obama.’ “

Recent polls show some erosion in Obama’s support from the under-30’s, who voted for him by a 2-1 margin over McCain in 2008. Nevertheless, a majority still approve of his job performance, the only age group showing a net positive, and the numbers are in the high 60s when it comes to personal attributes, Winograd notes. Millennials have been hit hardest of all groups when it comes to unemployment, yet there’s some doubt as to whether conservatives can make significant inroads if the primary process rewards stances against same-sex marriage and hard lines on immigration.

Young voters, however, are notoriously lax about voting, and that will be even more vexing if 2012 looks more like a traditional reelection campaign long on process and short on inspiration. The latter motivated figures like Will.i.am to do more than turn out at a rally or write a check. There was an organic aspect to the “Yes, We Can” video — made outside the official campaign — that gave it a greater authenticity as a viral phenom.

The Obama reelection campaign says they have been encouraged by some early stats, like the 12,000 young voters who applied to be organizers this summer, more than in 2008, and 1,100 fellows on college campuses this fall. Danielle D’Agostino, 23, gave up her job to be a fellow in Los Angeles. “There is too much to lose on the line right now,” she says. One of the summer organizers, Philip Zymet, 22, a UCLA political science major, says he volunteered in part because he felt Obama’s personal story connected to him and that the President “shares my values” when it comes to his policies. In his entire group of friends, Zymet says he is the only one interested in what is going on in politics. “People in my age group, if they are looking for work, they are not thinking about politics,” he says.

Young entertainment professionals, some of whom are simply worn down as they watch the bitter partisan warfare in Washington, may still be in Obama’s corner but no one knows how much energy they’ll put into the campaign this time around.

Haroon (Boon) Saleem, a film executive who in 2008 helped lead the grassroots org Generation Obama/LA, says that it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to re-create the energy of the last cycle, and that were Obama to try to simply mimic his soaring rhetoric of that year, “in my mind and on the part of a lot of progressives it rings a little hollow right now.

“Our feeling is it’s going to need to be a focus on the narrative and on what has been accomplished,” he says. “The focus, I hope, is going to be on how much he has done and on how much more is necessary in the coming years to be successful.”

Yosi Sergant, the PR exec instrumental in getting Fairey to do the “Hope” poster, as well as engaging a slew of other artists in the campaign, says that he plans to focus on issues rather than candidates to underscore the differences with the field of Republicans. He hears the dissatisfaction out there, but “disappointment in not getting something you want does not change the reality of what happens if the president does not return to office,” he says.

Obama, in a nod to Sarah Palin’s ridicule, insisted last week that the “hopey changey stuff” is “still there.” What remains to be seen is whether he can tap into it again, the aura that made “Yes, We Can” as potent a slogan as Nike’s “Just Do It.” Against a daily and sometimes hourly stream of bad economic news, only magnified in the digital era, maybe the better slogan should be, “Good luck with that.”

Obama also has acknowledged disappointment and frustration, including from Hollywood, but it is still early and a still stretch to think that the left-leaning business will abandon him in favor of the Republican nominee. More likely it will be more a question of verve than vote.

Michael Jurkovac, CEO at cYclops who produced the “Yes, We Can” with Will.i.am, says he’ll support Obama again but it’s too soon to know whether they’ll do another video, or even if that’s the right thing to do. The difference this time, especially in drawing younger voters, he says, is that no one knows whether any campaign can convey a positive message rather than the fear of the other candidate.

The connection, he says, comes from such optimism and the feeling they can do something about it.

“That is what was motivating about the campaign. They were all sort of at the right place and the right time to make it happen,” he adds. “If the right cause is there, I am sure it will happen again.”

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