Grading Obama’s activism

If Hollywood were to give out grades for how President Obama is doing on issues that matter most to liberal activists here, he would get -- at best -- an incomplete.

“The pace of change has begun to matter to Hollywood,” said Joel Flatow, who heads the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s West Coast office. And that pace, so far, may not be quick enough on the key issues of Darfur, the environment, stem cell research, gay rights, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So think of this as the industry’s progress report on the new president.




At the moment, Obama is on the verge of failing this one. The president came to office amid high hopes that he would end the genocide in this troubled area of western Sudan. But the appointment of Gen. Scott Grayson as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan has disappointed activists in Hollywood and elsewhere. And since then the industry and others have kept up a constant stream of criticism of American policy -- spurred by Grayson’s apparent willingness to make compromises with the Sudanese government -- and there is a growing sense that the president’s commitment to solving the problem was just campaign rhetoric.

“President Obama says all the right things about what the U.S. should be doing on Sudan,” said John Prendergast, who advises many celebrities on issues in Africa. “But he has been undermined by the diplomatic approach of his special envoy for Sudan. The president needs to reaffirm the approach he promised as a candidate for president, which was to hold accountable the regime that is responsible for the destruction of so many lives and communities in Darfur and southern Sudan.”


Stem cell research

The chief executive seems headed for an A on this issue from an industry that overwhelmingly supports stem cell research. Obama’s quick reversal of Bush administration policy banning federal support for most forms of stem cell research was a popular first step in the administration. The administration sponsored an event and invited longtime stem cell advocates Jerry and Janet Zucker, Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, and Sherry Lansing.

Afterward, Lansing said: “Obama has done everything he said he would do. It’s thrilling.”


Gay rights

The president got off to a rocky start here, but he seems to be gaining from a bit of remedial education. Activists remain frustrated by the military’s continued use of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but the president’s recent promises to lift that and to support something close to gay marriage has revived hopes that he’ll get passing marks.

“I think a fair report card of President Obama’s first nine months would show A’s and Bs across the board, with LGBT equal rights as the notable exception,” said gay activist and Hollywood political consultant Chad Griffin. “Until he does more than just talk about equality, he deserves no more than an ‘incomplete.’ But I’m hopeful that he’ll deliver.”


The environment

This is about as close to a unanimous issue as Hollywood gets. The town’s favorite color is green, and activists give Obama high marks.

Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold said he believes the president has appointed people with strong environmental backgrounds to tackle not only global warming but also the problem of toxins in the water and air. “The president has also been very supportive of an oceans policy,” Gold said. “He jumped on that very quickly. In the environmental community he gives us hope that things are turning around.”


Afghanistan, Iraq

The verdict is really out on this one. The peace constituency in Hollywood is one of its strongest. The president’s failure to act more quickly on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility raised a lot of eyebrows. Now activists are nervous about the impending decision on whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. If the president comes even close to agreeing with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on the build-up of troops in the region, look for more focused protests.

“You may see more organized opposition out there in the industry,” said political consultant Donna Bojarsky. “In general, I think people are concerned and worried -- not just about how Obama is living up to expectations, but how he’ll handle what he’s facing.”

In terms of a general assessment, Hollywood fundraiser and advisor Andy Spahn is more upbeat than most. “Ten months into his term, I’d give [Obama] an A. On issues like stem cell research, gay rights and the environment, he’s reversed many of the narrow-minded policy decisions we saw enacted by the Bush administration.”

Michael Feldman, an advisor and Hollywood liaison to Al Gore, also urges patience, something that’s often in short supply among the demanding glitterati.

“Obama’s been in office for less than 10 months and has had to simultaneously confront several crises, any one of which could have completely consumed his administration,” Feldman said. “The fact is that he has already made significant progress on many of these issues. That said, none of them are easy and none of them are going to be dealt with overnight.”