President Barack Obama soaked in the support — and the campaign cash — of Manhattan’s elite entertainers Thursday as his re-election team sought to fill its fundraising coffers. The president and first lady Michelle Obama made a rare joint fundraising appearance when they visited the home of actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. The intimate dinner banked about $2 million, with 50 people paying $40,000 each. The dinner was the Obama campaign’s latest attempt to bank on celebrities for fundraising help in countering the growing donor enthusiasm from Republicans supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.
Speaking in a dimly lighted, art-filled room, Obama told supporters they would play a critical role in an election that would determine a vision for the nation’s future. “You’re the tie-breaker,” he said. “You’re the ultimate arbiter of which direction this country goes.”
Among the celebrities on hand to hear Obama’s remarks were Oscar winner Meryl Streep, fashion designer Michael Kors and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who moderated a private question-and-answer session between the president and the guests. Broderick, who was starring in a Broadway musical, was absent.
The president and Mrs. Obama also headlined a second glitzy fundraiser in Manhattan Thursday night that included a performance from singer Mariah Carey and remarks by singer Alicia Keys. The 250-person dinner yielded the Obama campaign at least $2.5 million.
While Democrats have long held political and ideological ties to the TV and movie industry, the dynamic is different this time for Obama. His own celebrity has faded a bit after more than three years in the slog of governing, and some reliable donors have gotten so used to seeing him, they want more — like a real movie star. What’s more, Obama’s team is getting outraised by Republicans in a new, freewheeling environment, one in which wealthy donors can give unlimited amounts of money to outside political groups, known as super PACs, that can have huge sway over the presidential race.
As one counter-response, Obama is borrowing on the power of entertainers to give big bucks themselves and to encourage others to give what they can. The strategy holds the potential for peril. It allows opponents to paint Obama as hobnobbing for dollars with middle-class angst riding high. The Republican Party lampooned Obama as tone deaf when his campaign promoted the Parker/Wintour event on the same day news broke of climbing unemployment. Pressed about Obama’s relationship with the stars, his spokesman, Jay Carney, fired back: “Two words. Donald Trump. Next question?” Romney has received fundraising help from Trump, the camera-finding real estate mogul whom Obama has dismissed as a carnival barker.
From Tinseltown to Broadway, 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 than most people do in a lifetime. Obama played basketball with a Batman (Clooney) and a Spiderman (Tobey Maguire), all in one game. He held a private chat in Los Angeles with some of the town’s younger stars last week, including Jessica Alba and Jeremy Renner. He has had some of the most popular musicians in the business perform at his fundraisers, such as Alicia Keys, Cee Lo Green, Dave Matthews and the Foo Fighters. For his gig with Obama, Jon Bon Jovi even caught a ride on Air Force One.
In a tough economy, one way Obama tries to make it work is by raffling access for smaller donors, both to dinners with the president himself and to private affairs like the one at Parker’s house. Robin Hunt of Baltimore won an online contest to attend Thursday’s dinner. She brought her mother, Elvita, a voter in North Carolina, a key election battleground state. The contests typically ask donors to give $3 or whatever they can spare. The Obama campaign calls it a way to lure donors who may not otherwise be involved in politics at all. But implicit in the arrangement is that access to Obama, the president of the United States, is not enough of a draw. Obama’s campaign has gone so far as to make 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.
All the star wattage comes as Obama’s campaign is warning supporters that they need to give or Obama could lose. Central to Obama’s strategy is having a larger number of people giving small-to-medium donations. His campaign says 98 percent of donations received in May came in amounts of $250 or less. “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.”