Washington: You could call it “Checks and the City.”
President Barack Obama is using his Hollywood access to raise money in an increasingly tight election campaign, making a stop Thursday night at the New York home of Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker. She and fellow actor Matthew Broderick are hosting a $40,000-per-person fundraiser along with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
Then the president and first lady Michelle Obama will head to a second glitzy fundraiser in Manhattan, headlined by a performance by Mariah Carey.
While Democrats have long held political and ideological ties to the TV and movie industry, the dynamic is different this time. Obama’s own celebrity has faded a bit after more than three years in office, and his team is being outraised by Republicans in a new, freewheeling environment in which wealthy donors can give unlimited amounts of money to outside political groups for huge sway over the presidential race.
Obama is borrowing on the power of celebrities, but the strategy holds the potential for peril. The Republican Party criticized Obama as tone deaf when his campaign promoted the Parker/Wintour event the same day as the news broke of rising US unemployment.
Pressed about Obama’s relationship with the stars, his spokesman, Jay Carney, fired back: “Two words: Donald Trump. Next question?” Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, has received fundraising help from Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV star whom Obama has dismissed as a carnival barker.
Obama has surrounded himself with blockbuster names lately: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Spike Lee, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Cher and many others who make more in one year that most people do in a lifetime.
Obama held a private chat in Los Angeles with young stars last week, from Jessica Alba to Jeremy Renner. He has had Alicia Keys, Cee Lo Green, Dave Matthews, the Foo Fighters and other perform at his fundraisers. For his gig with Obama, Jon Bon Jovi even caught a ride on Air Force One.
“Let’s face it: They help raise the money that you need to wage a serious campaign,” said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame who has written about the intersection of politics and celebrity. “Most Americans today are involved in what we call the ‘celebrity culture’ anyway. They understand how it works.”
A fundraising dinner at Clooney’s house last month drew an eye-popping $15 million, with more of it coming from a low-dollar raffle than tickets to the event. Obama’s campaign is making its next “Dinner With Barack” raffle more enticing by telling would-be donors that they can help pick Obama’s guest — naming Clooney and Parker as examples.
Implicit in the arrangement is that access to Obama alone is not enough of a draw.
All the star wattage comes as Obama’s campaign is warning supporters that they need to give. Central to Obama’s strategy is having a larger number of people giving small to medium donations.
“The other side has the money,” campaign manager Jim Messina said in one appeal to donors. “They know they can buy the election if they spend it.”