President Obama has got the vote -- and money -- of Hollywood. Three weeks ago he attended George Clooney's star-studded dinner fundraiser, which raised $15 million and broke the record for a presidential campaign fundraiser. Sarah Jessica Parker and Glee creator Ryan Murphy just announced that they would also hold dinners in June.
While celebrities have endorsed presidential candidates in the past, now they have supported Obama with unprecedented levels of funds. The “disconnected” and “academic” Obama could use celebrity-like buzz from Perez and TMZ to boost his popularity and relevance. But are celebrity dinners the right publicity move? These Hollywood banquets are unlikely to sway public opinion about the president significantly, and ultimately they distract people from seeing Obama’s credentials as a political leader.
In some ways, these dinners are elitist and insulting. Clooney hosted the event at his multi-million dollar home in Los Angeles; celebrities arrived in black limos, Bentleys, and Porsches and lounged on Clooney’s private basketball court. $6 million was generated through ticket sales alone, priced at $40,000 per person. $9 million, however, came from an online contest offering two pairs of seats for "dinner with Barack and George" plus airfare. Such a title for the event, using the men’s first names, invites you to an intimate affair -- implying, most pretentiously, that you may win the opportunity to join the exclusive circle of people that chuckle with the president on a first-name basis. As per usual, Clooney tries to be more than an actor -- and I respect his right to do so -- but his dinner demonstrate that celebrities have disproportionate levels of influence on matters outside of their expertise.
Still, these celebrity events are unlikely to change the president’s image significantly. Some may denounce him as elitist and disconnected. Others will argue that big money is necessary for today’s campaigning culture, or see the dinners as an affirmation of his coolness or charm. If anything, all the sparkly gossip may distract voters. Something so insignificant has made so much noise -- crowding out airtime for real political issues.
The dinners are also a misguided PR move, not because they're elitist, but because they focus more on Obama's personal, rather than political, image. There seems to be little disagreement about Obama’s personality -- cool, charismatic, cerebral. But people question the way these traits translate into hard capabilities as a leader. Personality and politics certainly overlap, but Obama needs to prove his abilities directly through bold actions and words, not indirectly through “personality” PR such as celebrity dinners. He needs more substance, less style.
While it’s likely that Obama consorts with Hollywood stars more for their money than for the publicity value of celebrity endorsement, Obama has teamed up successfully with the entertainment industry. For example, he “slow-jammed” his stance against higher interest rates on student loans with Jimmy Fallon a few weeks ago. The clip is not only hilarious, but also allows Obama to articulate his stance on a real-life political issue. While the dinners and the TV show appearance obviously serve different purposes, the latter still offers a way to involve celebrities without blinding people with sparkling gems and lights -- if Obama does want to use celebrities to his advantage.
Schmoozing at celebrity dinners distracts people from seeing what the president has to offer for the next term. Obama needs to focus on his image as a political leader, rather than just his personality. If Obama wants to engage with the entertainment industry, he should avoid dining passively with A-listers and risk looking elitist. These dinners won’t kill him, but he should refocus the publicity on his credentials. Or, maybe he should just slow-jam again.