Last fall, Obama entertained megastar Lady Gaga, who was seated in the front row of a Silicon Valley fundraiser in six-inch heels and a towering blond bouffant.
Obama’s popularity with Hollywood glitterati is again on display as his campaign mobilizes its vast fundraising apparatus to amass cash in a campaign that is shaping up to be the most expensive in U.S. history.
If Obama was the candidate of cool in 2008, when celebrities such as musician Will.I.Am produced viral campaign videos , he has even more aggressively employed star power to open pocketbooks, build buzz and, perhaps most notably, deploy celebrities to target specific constituencies.
Yet Obama’s glamorous elbow-rubbing carries significant risks as he struggles to convince voters that he is focused single-mindedly on their economic concerns. And it is triggering attacks from his Republican rivals, who contend that the president is more interested in hobnobbing with Hollywood to help his campaign than he is in helping ordinary Americans.
On Monday, the Republican National Committee released a Web video called “Meanwhile,” which flashes unemployment numbers for various groups — women, Latinos, African Americans, youth — under clips from an Obama campaign video from last Friday of Vogue Editor Anna Wintour talking about hanging out with “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker and first lady Michelle Obama. The bustling sounds of New York City streets give way to crickets chirping at the end of the RNC version, along with the tag line: “Obama’s focused on keeping his job. But what about yours?”
Although Obama faced similar accusations in 2008, the charges are potentially more dangerous this time given that he is a sitting president responsible for managing the economy, rather than being just one of 100 senators. Yet the Obama campaign sees Hollywood as a powerful and necessary ally, able to both raise large amounts of money and also speak directly to important subgroups of voters who identify with the famous. On Monday, as his celebrity ties became an issue, Obama hosted rock star Jon Bon Jovi on Air Force One on the way to fundraisers in New York.
The fundraiser with Wintour and Parker, for example, is part of an effort to appeal to women; the reelection team next week is offering supporters a chance to win a raffle (entry fee $3) to attend the New York City event. In a fundraising e-mail to supporters Monday, Michelle Obama called Parker “a loving mom, an incredibly hard worker, and a great role model” and added: “She’s one of those people you can’t help but admire.”
The RNC response video mocked the timing of the Obama video’s release. The video “highlights how out of touch President Obama and his campaign are after releasing a glitzy fundraising video featuring Vogue chief Anna Wintour the same day as a dismal jobs report,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said, referring to a Labor Department report that showed the economy added just 69,000 jobs in May.
The Obama campaign struck back quickly, pointing out that Romney appeared last week with developer Donald Trump, host of the television show “The Apprentice.” Trump’s controversial comments questioning Obama’s birthplace overshadowed the event.
“It’s kind of humorous that they would take that tack,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign adviser, said Monday. “When Mr. Trump went off the deep end again, [Romney] did not rebuke him because he said he needed to get 50.1 percent of the vote.”
Furthermore, Axelrod added, Romney has sought fundraising help other famous names, including musicians Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.
“I don’t think they have a whole lot of standing on this issue,” Axelrod said.
Still, Romney’s drawing power among Hollywood’s elite pales in comparison to Obama’s. At a Beverly Hills fundraiser last week, Romney’s biggest-name guests were former “Happy Days” star Scott Baio and actor Jon Voight, who is also Angelina Jolie’s father.
Obama has drawn support from Hollywood’s biggest names and biggest bundlers, including moviemaking titans Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. The fundraiser last week at Clooney’s house — for which the campaign also held a raffle for ordinary supporters — included actors Tobey Maguire, Jack Black and Salma Hayek and singer Barbra Streisand. The campaign walked away with a whopping $15 million, its largest single-event total, including the raffle and $40,000-per-plate tickets for 150 guests.
In many cases, the Obama campaign has used celebrities to target specific constituencies. Eva Longoria, a campaign bundler who is a constant presence at Obama events, is popular among Hispanic women. Last month, Obama was introduced at a New York event by openly gay singer Ricky Martin, just days after the president expressed support for same-sex marriage.
Martin told the crowd that he admires “the courage he showed last week in affirming his belief in marriage equality. That is the kind of courage we expect from our president and that is why we support him.”
The attacks on Obama’s fascination with celebrities are not new. In 2008, Republican rival John McCain endorsed a video called “Celebrity” that mocked Obama’s popularity and included images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
“He’s the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?” the ad intoned.
That ad did little to damp Obama’s appeal, especially among young voters. John Weaver, a Republican strategist who had called the McCain video “childish,” said Monday that the RNC attack also would have little effect on voters.
“They’re trying to influence opinion leaders and journalists,” Weaver said. “But no voter cares about this issue, and it will not shape the opinion of any voters. What matters is whether the employment situation will improve.”
Yet for the Obama campaign, the need to recapture the enthusiasm of 2008 has grown more urgent with the economy still struggling. Heather Smith, president of the youth-oriented Rock the Vote, said there are 25 million unregistered voters under 30 years old, a far higher number than at the same time four years ago.
“All our polling shows an increased level of frustration with the pace of change, with the control of money and corporate interests in our political process,” she said, citing the Occupy Wall Street and tea party movements as offshoots of that frustration.
“The question for the president will be not whether he uses celebrity spokespeople, but how he uses them and what kind of message they convey,” Smith added. “People are worse off than they were four years ago. So it’s not just a straight to camera ‘go vote’ campaign. They need to leverage celebrities to actually talk about the issues.”
Obama’s celebrity surrogates have begun to help in that regard, a la Martin’s comments on same-sex marriage. But in many cases, the praise has been more effusive the other direction.
“We raised a lot of money because everybody loves George,” Obama told supporters at the Clooney event.
“They like me,” the president said. “They love him.”
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.