Why Too Much Inauguration Star Power Could Hurt Obama

A look at the past relationships between presidents and Hollywood.

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Presidents have always had an uneasy and complex relationship with the entertainment industry. Over the years, chief executives have often sought to link themselves with celebrities in hopes that some glamour would rub off on them, or that they would somehow look modern and savvy through their association with the stars. There has also been a more practical reason—money. Leaders of the entertainment industry have contributed millions of dollars to presidents and presidential candidates, so cultivating Hollywood can be politically profitable. And, of course, presidents find it useful to stay in touch with popular culture through movies, TV shows, and music.

But many Americans also have been leery about the White House-entertainer connection. Actors, actresses, singers, musicians, producers, directors, and other moguls have frequently seemed alien to middle-class life—both in terms of their often-liberal views and their vast riches and sometimes hedonistic lifestyles.

Barack Obama needs to be especially careful about his celebrity connections. He was, after all, the target of ads during the campaign in which Republican nominee John McCain mocked him as a self-important lightweight who had become one of the world's biggest celebrities. McCain even compared him with the model Paris Hilton. The criticism got some traction among middle-class voters who suspected that Obama was too elitist. Ever since, he has been careful to distance himself from the stars of stage, screen, and studio.

That is about to change.

Obama's inauguration celebrations will feature some of the world's most famous celebrities. On Sunday afternoon alone, the lineup will be dazzling. Among those who have agreed to sing at the opening inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial are Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Beyoncé Knowles, Stevie Wonder, Shakira, Garth Brooks, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, John Legend, and Usher. In addition, historical passages will be read by Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, and Denzel Washington (along with Martin Luther King III).

"We will have the statue of Abraham Lincoln looking down on our stage and a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people lining the mall—a tableau any director would relish," says Don Mischer, who is helping to arrange the festivities. Mischer is perhaps best known for producing the opening ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics and halftime shows at Super Bowls.

The problem is that all this can go too far. Obama can easily come across as more interested in hobnobbing with the rich and famous than in protecting the middle class and the down-and-out. Says a prominent Obama supporter and former presidential adviser: "I think he can restore some of the glamour to the White House that has obviously been dissipated, but he can't let the White House become Hollywood East."

Bill Clinton came perilously close to that image because he loved to socialize with famous entertainers he had admired all his life, from Barbra Streisand to Carly Simon. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, dealt with Hollywood more deftly. He was a former movie and TV actor, so he knew the entertainment culture firsthand. He never seemed to fawn over or curry favor with the Hollywood elite. Part of the reason was that Reagan was a celebrity himself, radiating charisma. "Members of Congress wanted to be in the Oval Office with Ronald Reagan," recalls a former Reagan aide. "They wanted to have their picture taken with him and distribute the photos back in their states."

Obama has a similar star quality, and he can use it to his advantage, as Reagan did—-and as the unpopular George W. Bush couldn't do. Legislators and others want to be associated with Obama and be seen with him, and, as a consequence, they "open themselves to persuasion," the former Reagan aide says. Obama can also use his celebrity connections to enhance his appeal to young voters, who tend to be more impressed with cultural icons than their elders. A new study by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher finds that voters under the age of 30 "were much more likely to come into the process identifying with our party: a near majority of 49 percent identify as Democrats; 28 percent identify as independents, and 19 percent as Republicans." A big reason for their move toward the Democrats was Obama, whom Belcher calls "a once-in-a-generation-type transformational leader who was able to excite and mobilize legions of new and disproportionately younger voters." Part of the reason, no doubt, was his star quality.