Obama in California: The good, the bad, and the $35,800 dinner plate

President Obama made his two-day, six-stop trip to California to raise money and rally his base. Along the way, he drew cheers at Facebook headquarters and hecklers in San Francisco.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
President Obama gestures during a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Wednesday.

What did President Obama get from his two-day, six-stop trip to California? A little excitement, a little controversy, and a lot of money.

California is not a state in which he is likely to spend a lot of time campaigning. It is solidly Democratic, and Mr. Obama will need to spend much of his time and energy in swing states during the general election campaign.

But now is the time to shore up support and energize his base, and California is, in some ways, the perfect place to do it. “California has always been the ATM for American politics, particularly for Democrats. And right now, the state likes Obama more than the nation does," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. "Strategically, it’s a very wise move.”

Things didn't all go according to plan, though. At a fundraiser in San Francisco Thursday, some attendees started heckling him by singing a song criticizing the administration for broken campaign promises on protecting civil liberties.

Still, Obama was expected to pull in $7 million on the trip, Professor Jeffe says.

There were other moments in the trip, too, that began to recapture a bit of the excitement of his 2008 campaign. For example, Obama held a town meeting at the offices of social networking site Facebook in Palo Alto, joking it up with its creator, Mark Zuckerberg.

“I’m the one who got Mark Zuckerberg to wear a coat and tie,” Obama told a cheering crowd.

“His stop at Facebook was clearly a tip of the hat to voters under 30,” says political author Kevin McCullough, via e-mail, noting that this age group voted for him on 7 out of 10 ballots it cast in 2008.

Moreover, the stop at Facebook highlighted what’s working in the country, says Brendan Kownacki, director of strategic innovation for Merge Creative Media.

“This is him taking a step up before the race gets crowded to tell the world, 'This is the American brand that is changing the world right now,' " he says.

"The president may have skipped throwing out the first baseball of the season – the traditional way of burnishing a president’s everyman credentials – but going to Facebook was the new-school way to show his human side,” Mr. Kownacki adds.

Another aspect of the 2008 campaign that Obama wants to recapture is his historic fundraising machine. According to the Federal Election Commission, Obama raised $124 million in California in 2008, "and there are no indications that he will slow down for 2012," says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies.

To that end, it’s important to pin down some of the top names early.

“Celebrities like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, David Geffen of Dreamworks, and actress Scarlett Johansson were a critical part of his early 2008 efforts,” says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”

Meanwhile, the incident in San Francisco offers a taste of the blowback Obama could get from some progressives who are frustrated that he has not moved quickly enough on issues including gay rights and Guantánamo Bay. Though street-level activists are probably not in attendance at six California events – ranging from a rally at SonyPictures Studios in Culver City requiring $100 to $2,500 to attend to a $35,800 a plate dinner in Brentwood – the big names that embrace those causes could be.

“Some of these individuals, like [filmmaker] Michael Moore, have … publicly distanced themselves from some of the president’s policy decisions," says Ms. Brown. “As a result, it is critical for President Obama to travel to California with the aim of raising not only campaign funds, but also the morale of his progressive base.”

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