Hollywood’s White House

Column: Tinsel Town has hijacked Obama’s campaign

June 22, 2012

John Carter, Battleship, The Dictator, Dark Shadows—add Barack Obama’s campaign to the list of Hollywood bombs shelling the 2012 summer box office. Like them, Obama for America is in the red, and reviews are not positive.

Obama’s reelection is the ultimate studio production, a sort of political It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that costs millions, features a cast of thousands, and stars some of the biggest names of the day. However, like all screwball comedies, things are not going as the protagonist intends. The entertainment industry has captured Obama’s presidency, and shifted the national agenda onto terrain familiar to California and New York liberals, but unfavorable to the independent voters who will decide 2012.

Having alienated practically all of business and Wall Street, the president has come to rely on film, fashion, and music donors. He raffles off tickets to dinners with George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker, and backstage passes to see Marc Anthony. Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has given $2 million to the Obama super PAC Priorities USA, even as his studio is under SEC investigation for alleged bribery of Chinese officials.

The most recent list of contributors to the Democratic National Committee resembles a promo for a bad episode of Hollywood Squares: "Kirk Douglas, Billy Crystal, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Tom Hanks, Salma Hayek, and Burt Bacharach." That last name is worth mulling. To paraphrase another million-dollar Hollywood donor to Obama’s super PAC, here is a new rule: When one relies on the composer of "What’s New Pussycat" for money, it may be time to say a little prayer for one’s campaign.

Meathead and other members of what is laughingly called "the artistic community" like to flatter themselves by saying that Hollywood is "the only group of donors that doesn’t ask for something in return." But only someone with the brobdingnagian ego of an actor could make such a fatuous statement: Of course Hollywood has benefited from its financial support of Obama. Of course Hollywood asks for something—many things—in return.

From post-material concerns such as same-sex marriage and contraception mandates to material perks such as killing the Keystone pipeline and funding green energy companies (where do you think actors and directors invest their royalties?) to film distribution deals with China to tax breaks for filmmakers to access to national security officials, Hollywood has gotten exactly what it wanted out of this president. The one possible exception to this rule has been the White House’s reluctance to embrace fully the Stop Online Piracy Act, but that move was likely a temporary hedge to preserve support from Silicon Valley until after the election. Obama is Hollywood’s man.

Consider this: Shortly after becoming Obama’s campaign manager in January 2011, Jim Messina went straight to Los Angeles for a Hillary Clinton-like "listening tour." He wanted advice, Bloomberg Businessweek reports, on how to manage a national startup effort, and thus sought out the usual New Economy gurus: the late Steve Jobs, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the guys behind ‘Mafia Wars 2,’ and others.

Perhaps the most important conversation, though, was with media mogul and Democratic powerhouse Steven Spielberg, who spent a feature-length three hours telling Messina how Obama’s reelection should proceed, and who arranged for further meetings between Messina and the marketing department of DreamWorks, of which Spielberg is a principal. The director "offered a number of ideas that will be rolled out before Election Day," Businessweek says, including the website, and other attacks on private equity.

Spielberg may know quite a bit about filmmaking, but has anyone ever seriously believed him to be an expert or sophisticated observer of politics and policy and the contours of American public opinion? Does producing gripping entertainment like Jaws and Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark—and embarrassing failures like 1941, Always, The Terminal, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—necessarily translate into a facility with political communication and persuasion? Or is it more likely that conceiving of politics in terms familiar to viewers of The West Wing and The Newsroom might not be the best way to broaden one’s appeal?

It was precisely Messina’s overreliance on Spielberg’s sheltered corner of the Democratic coalition that provoked internal criticism from Cory Booker, Ed Rendell, Deval Patrick, and Bill Clinton, officials with actual experience winning elections who questioned the strategy of demonizing an entire industry in the pursuit of power.

Nor was Romney’s business record the only place where Hollywood has led Obama astray. His social policy is at odds with Catholics who attend church weekly and other friends of religious liberty. His energy policy is at odds with the public at large, and with the populations of coal-mining states including Ohio and Pennsylvania. The issues that matter most to the cultural left not only energize the conservative base; they also distract from the public’s top priority: the economy and the challenge of American growth. Celebrity raffles may titillate those already devoted to your cause, but they are unlikely to grab the attention of out-of-work homeowners in the upper Midwest.

In Hollywood’s dramatization of the Obama campaign, the president is an idealist, confronted by catastrophe, who is improving things bit by bit. That was the message of "The Road We’ve Traveled," the Obama propaganda film directed by Davis "An Inconvenient Truth" Guggenheim and narrated by Tom Hanks. It was the message of the president’s June 14 "reframing speech" in Cleveland. But it is also a message that has failed to persuade independent audiences, according to Democrats James Carville and Stan Greenberg, liberal journalists Al Hunt and Eleanor Clift, and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "I got duped," one Colorado swing voter, who supported Obama in 2008, told Hart. "I fell under his spell."

What Spielberg and Katzenberg should know is that a film can have an expensive and superb marketing campaign, an A-list star, tremendous special effects, and a big-time budget, but still flop spectacularly if it does not tell a compelling story. All of Hollywood’s script doctoring cannot rescue this particular tale of a failed presidency—the story of how a young, ambitious, liberal Democratic senator promised a dispirited American people a new era of bipartisan reform, and then handed the controls of government to hard-knuckle lefty partisans such as Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank, and Harry Reid. No amount of glitz and glam can mask a four-year decrease in per capita disposable personal income and household wealth, decelerating economic growth, rising health care costs, and financial downgrades.

The result is an over-budget, half-baked mess of a film, with a premise that overpromises but under-delivers, and a leading man who grows more annoying by the hour. Obama for America 2012 may appeal to niche audiences, but it is underperforming its 2008 box office, and may be limited to select theaters in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Some critics may enjoy the lavish but ultimately rather pathetic spectacle. I am waiting for The Dark Knight Rises.