What If Oprah Does Run?
The fungibility of power, converting fame and gravitas into a nomination and 270 electoral votes, remains an open question.
The latest tremor in what has become the earthquake of American presidential politics comes in the form of billionaire media titan Oprah Winfrey’s rumored exploration of a 2020 White House bid. Her Golden Globes speech — hardly a traditional launchpad for a career in politics — was a call to arms for the oppressed, particularly women. It had a unifying tone reminiscent of a young Barack Obama in 2004, when he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. This was the speech that “made” him.
Online, this most hyped up and politically significant acceptance speech in recent memory is the top viral video of the moment. The “Time’s Up” theme of the gala referred to the campaign against sexual assault that has swept the nation, but it may just as easily have been a time’s-up call against Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Shortly after the speech, commentators from across the political spectrum disagreed on whether an Oprah Winfrey run would unite the left or sow further chaos in a Democratic Party still reeling from Trump’s surprise victory. One thing no one disputes is Winfrey’s ability to win.
If she chooses to run, Oprah Winfrey will enter the fray with a combination of strengths and weaknesses unique in presidential politics. Chief among her advantages is her ability to connect with an audience. Decades of experience as a journalist, author and public speaker give her a powerful weapon in any race against an incumbent whose greatest strength is plainspoken communication with voters and a ring of unpolished authenticity and confidence. Oprah is one of the few people in America able to beat Donald at his own media game.
Another strength is her success and position in society. As founder of a media empire that includes a popular magazine and a television channel, Winfrey enjoys a ready-made public relations machine at her disposal. Her profession, as well as her previous support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, give her access to a network of friends and contacts at the highest levels of Washington politics while at the same time maintaining sufficient distance to avoid being tarnished by insider “swamp” politics voters resoundingly rejected in 2016.
Candidate Winfrey would also have weaknesses. The political neophyte has neither professional-level expertise in any particular policy area nor any knowledge of Beltway politics and the labyrinthine legislative process. Voters may think a wealthy TV star entering the political arena a mere case of Democrats playing copycat and lacking originality. The fungibility of power, converting fame and gravitas into a nomination and 270 electoral votes, remains an open question. It is too early to tell if her obvious base on the left, or moderates who voted for Trump, would be enough to add up to a win.
Last, and perhaps most challenging, is the competition. The Democratic Party may suffer a thin bench in Congress and in governors’ mansions, but it has its potential contenders. Former Vice President Joe Biden, despite his age (he would, at 76, be America’s oldest new president, beating current record holder Trump by six years), is popular, experienced and a proven political veteran. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the energetic Harvard law professor who proposed and led the organization of the Consumer Protection Bureau, ignites excitement among her base and would stand an eloquent and wonky contrast to a president famously short on policy specifics.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown hails from a key swing state and can appeal to the working class voters who won Trump Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Other senators and governors like Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Cuomo of New York, Kamala Harris and Gerry Brown of California, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut come from coastal, increasingly left-leaning states but nonetheless would get serious attention. Winfrey is among the first, but one of many.
The résumé the would-be candidate from Illinois brings to a presidential bid will prove far less important than the narrative she could weave. Oprah Winfrey is, if nothing else, a master storyteller, her skills honed on film sets, in documentaries, her magazine and thousands of interviews with princes and paupers alike. The story of a destitute girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi, who wore potato sacks for dresses and rose up to become a philanthropist and a global household name embodies the American dream and provides a ready alternative to the brash heir to the Trump real estate empire.
No matter the decision, Oprah Winfrey has yet to announce anything, and the Democrats are still mulling their chances. An expected major win for Democrats in 2018 midterm elections and a stalled domestic agenda for the president may leave an opening for a strong opponent to unseat Trump. Still, anything can happen between now and 2020.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.