What Hollywood Wants from Obama

They acted as surrogates, stumped on the campaign trail and held lavish fundraisers at their homes.
They donated heaps of cash, led voting drives and made insanely viral Web videos. And last month, they descended on Washington to celebrate with their publicists, their Prada and — finally — their president.

So what do celebrities want from President Barack Obama now?

More than they’re likely to get.

Although Obama threw a star-studded inaugural festival, he’s no Bill Clinton — so don’t expect Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers for Ted Danson or parties with Barbra Streisand. Indeed, during his inaugural address, Obama spoke dismissively of those who “seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”

The celebrities may fare better on matters of substance. Hollywood is launching its biggest agenda in years, hoping a Democrat in the White House will mean more action on Darfur, the environment, stem cell research and health care — all big causes in the celebrity set and all areas where it seems very likely the new president will at least attempt to make progress.

But before Obama’s most famous supporters are able to start checking items off their wish lists, they’ll need to develop a working relationship with him. And that’s where things get complicated.

Even as showbiz types marveled at the Inauguration’s historical significance, there were grumblings over the Rev. Rick Warren’s invocation and the absence of the Rev. Gene Robinson — a gay Episcopal priest — during HBO’s initial telecast of the Lincoln Memorial concert. At the Out for Equality Ball, led by Human Rights Campaign, some producers were privately dubious of the Obama team’s claim that the omission was just a miscommunication.

It’s not hard to see where more significant rifts may develop. During the Bush years, the entertainment industry’s anti-war contingent thrived. If an expanded war in Afghanistan creates a quagmire, the industry’s very vocal peace activists could quickly lose patience with Obama.

“Hollywood is a Democratic place, and extremely enthusiastic for Obama,” said Donna Bojarsky, a Hollywood-based political consultant. “But the seasoned activists in particular will see that there are certain times you will agree and certain times you won’t. When it comes to younger generations who have not been involved in politics until this election, I imagine it will be an education process. You win some, and you lose some.”

The upshot: Activists still have to lobby the Obama administration, Bojarsky said. “I don’t think anyone expects that the work is done, nor should they.”

Music legend Quincy Jones, boosted by hopes that Obama will focus new attention on the arts, wants to pitch his idea for a Cabinet-level “secretary of the arts.” An online petition has gathered more than 205,000 signatures.

“I have had that idea for a long time now,” Jones said. “It is just a question of us executing it. I think we need it now more than ever. I really do. There’s science, and then there’s the soul.”

Said the Creative Coalition’s Robin Bronk: “We want arts to be made a priority and not just a fringe.”
Obama could feel the need to tread lightly here. From Robert Mapplethorpe to the debate over stimulus package funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, federal money for the arts has often been a weapon for the right.

But industry advocates are unmoved by these political considerations.

“We’re going to be actively involved in making sure there’s significant funding for the arts and that it’s looked upon as an entree, not a dessert,” Bronk said. “We want to factor arts and culture into the financing of programs.”

Another idea floating around Hollywood is the creation of a group of celebrity surrogates similar to the United Nations Global Ambassadors program. Yet Hollywood’s liberal tendencies also mean it can quickly turn against the kind of moderate compromises Obama has promised. Welfare reform landed with a thud among many Hollywood progressives in the mid 1990s, only to gain support from Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress. But after eight years in the wilderness, Hollywood is trying to regain influence in the White House.

“The more active Hollywood becomes, the more active the public will be,” said Phil Viardo, a Los Angeles-based agent and producer. “Hollywood is a huge motivating factor. One thing is undeniable: People can say all they want about Hollywood’s opinion, but the majority of Americans look up to and listen to celebrities.”

Asked if Obama will tap into the Hollywood network, Viardo responded, “I think he already has.”

It is unclear what role Tinseltown will play in the new administration or how far discussions have gone between the White House and industry officials. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the Obama campaign saw an “unprecedented amount of support from citizens all across this country, and the president was clear throughout the campaign that elected officials in Washington alone aren’t going to bring the change we need.

“That power lies in the hands of Americans who are engaging their communities, whether they are celebrities in the media or hard-working middle-class families who are also fighting every day to keep their jobs and send their children to college,” Shapiro said. As someone who’s arguably the No. 1 celebrity — and who has taken hits for it — Obama seems well aware of the perils of getting too close to showbiz personalities. He spent comparatively little time during the campaign courting Hollywood’s political establishment, the likes of Haim Saban and Norman Lear and Warren Beatty.

And for all the high-watt talent that surrounded Obama’s Inauguration, Andy Spahn, a top consultant and Obama fundraiser, describes the Hollywood-Obama relationship as “very muted.”
US Weekly editor Janice Min agrees.

“I think the Obamas are grateful for help, but it’s not going to be like Bill Clinton befriending Barbra Streisand,” Min said. “I don’t think he considers the relationship — he doesn’t need them like oxygen; he views them as supporters.”

But if Obama doesn’t need validation from celebrities, do they need it from him?

Min said yes.

“When you’re a celebrity, there’s always a huge amount of ego wrapped up in trying to win over the man who is the biggest known, most beloved celebrity at the moment — that’s a goal to seek.”

Ted Johnson is managing editor of Variety and author of the blog Wilshire & Washington. Anne Schroeder Mullins contributed to this story.

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