Can Hollywood save Joe Biden?

Andrew Feinberg reports on how President Joe Biden is looking to the stars to supercharge his re-election effort

Tuesday 21 May 2024 18:31 BST
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Actor Mark Hamill appeared in the White House briefing room in support of President Biden earlier this month
Actor Mark Hamill appeared in the White House briefing room in support of President Biden earlier this month (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

With just under six months to go until the 2024 election, President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him in his bid for another four years in the White House.

He is trailing his likely Republican rival, former president Donald Trump, in five of six swing states. Young voters and non-white voters in particular are moving away from the president, according to polls. Gaza, the accompanying protests, and the economy have proven powerful in tearing previous Democratic voters away from the sitting president — especially in those all-important “blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

So, in the hopes of shoring up support among voters who are far more skeptical of him after four years as president, Biden is turning on a familiar Democratic tap — and looking to Tinseltown for answers.

There’s a long history of politicians in Washington, DC — or “Hollywood for ugly people,” as it’s often dubbed — showing off support from the stars, going back as far as then-president John F Kennedy’s friendship with singer and actor Frank Sinatra.

And in recent months, a steady stream of Hollywood A-listers have flowed through the White House, as well as popping up around the re-election campaign for Biden and Harris at fundraisers and on social media.

Mark Hamill, who played jedi master Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, appeared behind the lectern at the White House briefing room earlier this month to mark the unofficial Star Wars-related holiday celebrated on May 4th (because “May the Fourth” sounds like the first three words in that film series’ famous salutation, “May the Force Be With You”). Hamill called Biden “the most legislatively successful president in my lifetime,” a remark that was later broadcast on the president’s social media channels, and his name was also used in a campaign fundraising solicitation sent out that same day.

(Andrew Feinberg)

Actress Uma Thurman — the Oscar-nominated actress whose star turns in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill made her a household name — appeared at an event alongside First Lady Jill Biden to mark Mother’s Day. And one of Thurman’s character’s revenge victims in the first half of the Kill Bill two-parter, Lucy Liu, also made the trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this month, to appear in a video to mark Asian American History Month.

Biden was also able to rally five fictional former “presidents” for a video released to mark his most recent State of the Union address. In the clip, he appeared alongside Morgan Freeman (who played the US president in the movie Deep Impact); Bill Pullman (Independence Day); Tony Goldwyn (ABC’s series Scandal), Geena Davis (Commander in Chief) and Michael Douglas (The American President.)

At the same time, Biden has been accused of largely bypassing interviews with traditional print and broadcast outlets, and opted for softball Hollywood chats instead. He has made multiple appearances on the Smartless podcast hosted by actors Sean Hayes, Will Arnett and Jason Bateman. And he appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers in February alongside Harris, while Harris sat down solo with actress-turned-host Drew Barrymore on her eponymous program in April.

Whether celebrity endorsements make much difference is a matter that’s up for debate — even in an election cycle where one of the people standing is a former TV star.

James Carville, the veteran Democratic operative who masterminded former president Bill Clinton’s victorious 1992 campaign over then-president George H W Bush, told The Independent that he doesn’t see much value in Biden’s — or anyone’s — efforts to use Hollywood stars to attract voter eyeballs.

“I just don’t see this as a very big potential issue in one way or the other … Most of the anti-Hollywoodism is already baked into the cake, and Democrats have always raised a lot of money from the entertainment industry,” he said. Republicans love to position the more Hollywood-friendly Democrats as out-of-touch elitists because of their celebrity connections, but Carville is unconvinced that this attack will land that well in 2024.

Indeed, even as many mainstream celebrities have associated themselves with the Democratic Party, Republicans have also touted their A-List connections, with honest-to-God stars such as Kelsey Grammer, Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, James Woods, Tom Selleck and Clint Eastwood flying the Party of Lincoln’s flag in their private and public lives.

Republicans may fear the electoral impact of a surprise Biden endorsement from a genuine mega-star such as Taylor Swift, but it’s the fundraising power of Hollywood luminaries that may prove far more damaging to Trump’s effort to win a second term in the White House.

When Biden announced his re-election bid in April of last year, he chose as one of the co-chairs of his campaign a modern-day Hollywood mogul: Dreamworks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. The 73-year-old Katzenberg has long been a Democratic power broker and fundraiser extraordinaire, as well as a major donor in his own right, having given millions to Democratic candidates and aligned groups over the years.

The former Walt Disney Studios chairman’s rolodex appears to have been just as important as his money.

In the first half of 2024, the Biden campaign held a number of high-profile, big-ticket fundraisers either hosted or attended by top entertainment talent. One such event took place on March 28, when Biden appeared with his two most recent Democratic predecessors — former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. That event alone brought in more than $25 million to the Biden campaign coffers.

The conversation between the three presidents was moderated by The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, but the program — and audience — included such luminaries as Mindy Kaling, Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Cynthia Erivo and Lea Michele.

A month later, Biden travelled to New Jersey — the original home of the movie business — for a fundraiser at the home of a high-powered supporter and one of the former fictional presidents he’d spoken to before the State of the Union. His host? None other than Michael Douglas, President Andrew Shepherd himself.

Biden is also set to benefit from another star-studded fundraising bash next month set for Los Angeles, featuring Obama as well as megastars George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

Mark McKinnon, the Republican media guru-turned-television host who once worked on George W Bush’s presidential campaigns, said in a telephone interview that attacking Democrats over their support from celebrities has long been a staple of Republican ad-making because Democrats “are just perceived to be the party of Hollywood”. His advice? Don’t worry about it and just rake in the big bucks.

“Biden’s gonna get tagged with Hollywood no matter what he does … He might as well just raise a ton of money …  because at the end of the day, the Hollywood attack is not going to do much,” he said.  “But the extra money will be an advantage.”

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