Obama and Hollywood: State of Their Union

Questions about image, key issues hover over LA fundraiser

When President Obama took to the stage at a Beverly Hilton ballroom on May 27, 2009, to raise money for the Democratic National Committee, it was a victory lap of sorts for the 250 studio executives, directors and stars who had paid $15,200 apiece to dine on kabachi ravioli as they listened to their newly elected leader.

"If it weren't for you, we would not be in the White House," the president told DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, going on to recognize the deep pockets of other showbiz contributors who had put millions into his campaign coffers.

Tonight, a little more than a year later, Obama arrives in Hollywood again to meet and greet industry heavy hitters. This time, the feelings of many in the crowd are more complicated. Obama has faced criticism from the left about unfulfilled campaign promises ranging from the closure of Gitmo to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

This evening's fundraiser featuring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi takes place at the Hancock Park home of "ER" and "The West Wing" executive producer John Wells and benefits the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The usual gang of Hollywood A-listers will be in attendance: the host committee includes J.J. Abrams and wife Katie McGrath, Alan and Cindy Horn, Barbra Streisand, the Katzenbergs, and Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg (though the S and K of DreamWorks SKG aren't expected to show).

With rising "wrong track" poll numbers and mounting criticism by donors and supporters over the administration's Afghanistan policy, compromises in the health-care bill and lackluster Wall Street reform, it's painfully obvious that many Hollywood natives are getting restless.

Obama has not cozied up to the industry and, indeed, has told insiders he feels uncomfortable schmoozing movie-biz bigwigs -- a big departure from Bill Clinton's M.O.

Obama's best friends in Los Angeles are his old Chicago and Harvard Law School buddies, so you won't find him partying into the night with Steve Bing. Supporter George Clooney warned how getting close to Obama could backfire and subject him to ridicule from the right. (Today marks only the fourth time Obama has visited Hollywood as president.)

Most Hollywood Democrats likely fall into the same category as the 85% of self-described liberals who approve of the job Obama is doing, according to a national survey released Thursday by the Democrat-affiliated Public Policy Polling, which found that 12% of liberals disapprove and 3% are unsure.

"Obama came in with an enormous amount of hope and a big agenda but faced a very polarized Washington," said "Inglourious Basterds" and "An Inconvenient Truth" producer Lawrence Bender, whose latest documentary, "Countdown to Zero," centers on nuclear proliferation. "Would I like the health-care bill to have more in it? Yes! Would I like financial reform to have more in it? Yes! Do I wish more were happening? Yes! But he's doing a pretty good job given the circumstances he walked into, and certainly on the issue of nuclear proliferation he's been stellar."

During his Los Angeles book party for "The Promise: President Obama. Year One," Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter spoke with Hollywood's glitterati and literati at the Westside home of Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton (who also happens to be his brother-in-law). Director Jay Roach, "House" executive producer Paul Attanasio, "Little Miss Sunshine" producer Ron Yerxa and more than 100 others gathered to grill Alter with questions about the president.

"I didn't detect any anger, (but) on one level they are disappointed," Alter said about the Hollywood community. "On another level, there's residual admiration for him and an understanding they don't know about the details of his job."

On many issues about which the guests cared -- the environment and gay rights, among them -- Alter said the matters simply are out of Obama's hands. "Climate change went through the House but failed in the Senate," he said. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell requires an act of Congress, and Obama needs (Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman) Adm. (Mike) Mullen to lead the way."

Another Hollywood insider who isn't swayed by naysayers is Phoenix Pictures chief Mike Medavoy, who said: "I am and will continue to be an Obama supporter. I have no question he has the best interests of the country at heart." Although Medavoy has issues with the ongoing war in Afghanistan and hasn't been as active in fundraising as in the past, he holds the "utmost respect" for Obama, even as some close friends say they've given up supporting individual politicians in favor of causes.

Alter, Medavoy and Bender agree that, despite Obama's successes, the optics have been obscured and the president's PR apparatus needs an overhaul -- no small criticism coming from those in the business of building images. Clinton turned to Hollywood to burnish his biography with Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's glowing "Man From Hope" mini-documentary, and Obama could use some Tinseltown glitter to tout his legislative wins.

"He's getting a lot of flak from a lot of sides, but he averted big disasters, and communication about what he's done hasn't hit strongly enough," Bender said.

Adds Alter: "Conversation at my book party centered on why he hasn't been able to frame his messages better. When he said recently that the presidency is not theater, he was wrong. He's not as good an actor as Reagan, and that hurts him."

Stronger criticisms of Obama's policies abound. One industry source involved in Democratic fundraising who requested anonymity told The Hollywood Reporter: "The man that we know and the man that Hollywood campaigned for is still there, but he's missing the moment. He's missing the connection with the people. He had an opportunity to show he's a different generation, and he hasn't done it."

The area in which Hollywood expresses its dissatisfaction most clearly is over Obama's track record on gay rights. Activist Bruce Cohen, the "Milk" and "American Beauty" producer now working on next year's Oscars telecast, insists that "it's not time to grade him yet -- we haven't even gotten to the midterm exams" but still feels some administration stands are conflicted.

"We've not had presidential support on gay marriage itself, though Obama said that (California's) Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, which we appreciated," he said. Still, "we're hoping one of the things the case does is make people realize you can't be against Prop. 8 and be against gay marriage."

In West Hollywood's WeHo News last week, former Clinton White House adviser David Mixner blasted Obama's mixed messages to gay supporters in light of the recent Prop. 8 judicial decision.

"Our President, our fierce advocate, continued with a game of giving us begrudging congratulations in a tepid, unemotional and uninspired statement while sending his minions out to make sure the entire country knew that he was against marriage equality," he wrote.


Considering his fundraising efforts include major Hollywood political force David Geffen and others active in the gay-rights movement, Obama will have to better calibrate his stances on connected issues like the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop. 8 and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Cohen believes that indecision on Don't Ask, Don't Tell might be pivotal.

"With each passing month, people are getting more angry," he says, adding, "every fiber of me wants (the President) to live up to all those hopes" generated during the 2008 campaign.
Indeed, during last year's Hollywood dinner at the Beverly Hilton, a group of protesters gathered outside to rail against Prop. 8, and others shouted slogans slamming Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Inside the hotel, Obama acknowledged the hubbub but said he had no idea what issues were being protested.

"One person said, 'Obama, keep your promise,' " the president commented from the podium.

"I thought: 'That's fair.' " Then, in an aside, he added, "I don't know which promise he was talking about."

The crowd chuckled then. They might not be laughing quite as much this evening.
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