Oprah Winfrey for President? Again?

The question “What if Oprah Winfrey will candidate for President?” is not a new. (I run an article in 2007 about this). But do you think this time is something different, is she somehow an answer to Trump, but if she really is aren’t we then more in the celebrity death match territory than in political territory? (Yes, I have to admit I am a bit sceptical about famous people running for an office, even when we are talking about such accomplished person as Oprah Winfrey). Read few comments.

Oprah Winfrey. Credit: http://www.oprah.com

Myra GutinProfessor of Communication, Rider University

You pose an excellent question and one that is now being asked all over the country: would Oprah Winfrey consider running for president?

To begin, she would be an attractive candidate: a self-made billionaire, successful businesswoman, philanthropist, celebrity, and at this point in time, many would support her candidacy because she is simply not Donald Trump. She is loved by the electorate. I haven’t seen any polling data yet, though I’m sure researchers are soliciting opinions about a White House run. The general perception is that she could defeat Trump.

With all of that said, the country may be uneasy about electing another person to the presidency who has no background in governing, political collaboration, politics of the Congress. We have no idea where Ms. Winfrey stands on the issues, immigration, health care, tax policy, defense. Some of the hard lessons of Trump are that these elements do make a difference. I read the comments of one political consultant who said that while he is certain Oprah would make a better president than Trump, she would begin her tenure as Chief Executive with the same deficits.

Another question is, would Oprah want to subject herself to bruising primary battles before getting to the general election? Her personal popularity is bound to suffer and as has been noted previously, Hillary Clinton was pilloried during both (actually four) campaigns. At one point, Oprah said that she was not interested in politics, but her partner Stedman Graham said that she is “up for it” and two of her good friends report that she is considering a run.

My feeling is that she will not run. Even though Democrats are desperate to have a viable presidential candidate, I believe that Ms. Winfrey will not pursue the nomination. I also go along with the sentiment expressed in an article in Slate this morning by Dahlia Lithwick, “What I heard in her speech wasn’t a bid to save us all, but rather a powerful charge to the young girls watching at home to tell their own stories, to fight for their own values and to battle injustices with the certainty that they will be seen and heard.” She did not say that she (Oprah) would lead the charge, she wanted others to get involved.

No question that Oprah could be a political force, but at this point in time, my sense is that she will sit this one out.

Dan Cassino, Associate Professor of Political Science, Fairleigh Dickinson University

I agree with you that there isn’t anything new about speculation that Winfrey will run for President. In many ways, Winfrey is a unique figure in American society, as she has managed to transcend racial categories: she is an African-American woman, but people don’t apply negative stereotypes about African-Americans to her, in the way that they did even to President Obama. Two things are different now: first, the Democratic Party is flailing around for a positive message that isn’t seen as too extreme to be successful in a general election. Bernie Sanders has a positive issue agenda, for instance, but he’s seen as too far to the left to be competitive. Other Democrats are mostly pushing an anti-Trump message, which, for now, is working just fine. The fact that Winfrey can carry such a message is exciting to the liberal base that’s been looking for it.

Second, the idea that someone needs political experience in order to be President has been thrown out the window. In the past, a candidate like Winfrey would have been attacked for being inexperienced: now, there’s no one  – at least in the Republican Party – who can seriously make that claim. I still would be very surprised if she does run, but I don’t expect her to tamp down on the talk anytime soon: there’s no downside to people thinking that you’re going to run.

Ruth McClelland-NugentAssociate Professor of History, Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy, Deputy Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Augusta University

First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that many Americans feel the country is in a severe crisis, one revealing fundamental constitutional weaknesses. Putting forth unusual candidates is  a sign of this grave concern. It also speaks to the increasing media reality that  presidential potential is defined in large part by charisma, by invoking grand visions rather than solid policy.

Certainly charisma played a large role in the elections of men like Kennedy and Reagan—but coverage of the 2016 election certainly made it clear how much starpower has come to be highlighted over policy or experience.  Trump is a pop culture president, not a policy one. Political experience is a drawback, since no politician can have a 20 or 30 year career without making mistakes or missteps.  In 2008, Barack Obama benefited from having a relatively short political career, with fewer “gotcha” moments. In 2016, the stable and experienced Hillary Clinton was derided as boring and her record hyper-criticized,  while Trump’s ringmaster personality and lack of policy experience turned out to be an advantage for positive media coverage.

It reminds me of the years just before the US Civil War, when Franklin Pierce was elected in 1856. He succeeded, in part, because he’d spent the previous years as an ambassador to the UK, and had few public statements on the slavery debate. Lincoln, in 1860, had served in the Illinois state legislature and one term in Congress, a pretty thin record for a presidential candidate.  After the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, victorious general with no record of elected office, won the 1868 general election by a comfortable margin. The resemblance to the politics of the Civil War underlines the current political crisis.

I haven’t addressed Oprah’s suitability for office for the simple reason that she’s repeatedly said she is not interested in running. The current discussion has little to do with her own plans, and a lot to do with the hopes and fears of anti-Trump American liberals. Born into deep poverty in Mississippi, sexually abused multiple times before her 14th birthday, facing prejudice due to gender and race, Oprah parlayed talent, hard work, and luck into celebrity and  a successful multimedia business empire. As much as Trump wants to embody the aspirational “American dream,” he can’t escape that he is a white male who started with an exceptionally wealthy father and many family connections. Liberals see in Oprah someone with Trump’s fantasy appeal, but a genuine rags-to-riches story (and more humane values). That is probably more relevant to this current “Oprah for president” craze than any sober assessment of her political potential.

Eric KasperAssociate Professor, Department of Political Science, Director, UWEC Center for Constitutional Studies, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Although Donald Trump is the first U.S. president to be elected without previous government or military experience, there have been plenty of other American celebrities who have won elective lower office after being in entertainment, including Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood. This is still relatively rare, but entertainment celebrities bring certain advantages to a campaign, including notoriety, the ability to more easily garner media attention, good speaking skills, and (often) substantial personal wealth.

Beyond being a media personality, Oprah Winfrey, like Donald Trump, has had a successful business career. If she were the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, it would make 2020 a very different presidential election than we have seen in the past. Furthermore, she would be able to use Trump’s approach in 2016 against him, That year, he campaigned as an outside who would shake things up if elected. Since he is now the incumbent, she would be able to play that role if she ran against him.

Although traditionally we have not had a history of persons running for the presidency as their first office in the U.S., politicians need to run for their first office sometime. Many American politicians initially had success in the business world – or in comparable professions like law or the non-profit sector – which gave them some level of notoriety and experience that led to their success in politics. With a high level of name recognition and working in a large business venture, Donald Trump showed that it is possible to win the White House.

It may be the case that more celebrities start running for office in the U.S. based on Trump’s success in winning the White House, but I think it will continue to be rare to see celebrities running for the presidency as their first office. I think this will particularly be the case if President Trump’s approval ratings continue to be low. If that remains true, the public will likely want a return to the norm of presidential candidates with substantial government experience. Remember, too, Trump’s opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, had very high negative ratings; in a race against a more popular traditional politician, it will continue to be difficult for celebrities to succeed in running for president.

Gil TroyProfessor of History, McGill University

I think we are seeing three things intersecting…

First, the story of American celebrities and politics is not new… in a society so obsessed with fame, the temptation to convert that fame not just into money but to power is great – and has worked for Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump, among others,,,

Second, in the age of Trump it’s not surprising that just as senators used to look at themselves in the mirror and see a potential president because they looked at the current president and thought “I can do better than that guy” — celebrities would do the same.. “If he could do it, I can” logic  has all kinds of silly people dreaming of the White House.

And finally, you also felt that desperation a year-plus of Trump has spawned in that room. Trump is bad, but the fury around him treats him as even worse and makes people desperate for a savior …. Oprah did what she has been doing for decades – she read the room – -and delivered, big time!

I am not about to predict in 2018 that she will run or win in 2020– she herself may not really know — but I do think she knew what she was doing and, as with Trump himself a few years back recognized a win-win – either she does go for it … and wins … or if not, she doesn’t really lose because the personal brand and legend she has spent her life building so brilliantly will only grow bigger and shine brighter among all those who worship her…

Also, less cynically, she spoke from the heart, and spoke eloquently about themes she has devoted her life to – so it was a win-win-win she did champion core ideals and key principles that she feels are under attack – did it in front of an ideal audience (both sympathetic and famous) — and got the coverage she hoped for — and most mortals could only dream of…

Nicholas CullProfessor of Public Diplomacy and Director of the Masters Program in Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California

The idea of Oprah running for office is not new — in fact back in 1999 another TV celebrity suggested she should run and run along with him, as his Vice President.  His name was Donald Trump.  My feeling is that many people in the US have had enough of a celebrity president and that they will be looking for an experienced politician this time round, however I do feel that Oprah will be a force to be reckoned with as an endorser or a campaigner for whoever gets the Democratic nomination.

Steffen SchmidtLucken Endowed Professor of Political Science, Iowa State University

Oprah Winfrey is interesting because a few years ago there would have been no chance in hell of someone with no elected political experience running for President.Ronald Reagan was a movie star but also governor of California the biggest and richest state (and the eighth richest country in the world if it were a nation.)

Donald Trump has broken the barrier and it now seems possible for someone with her background (Very rich, a famous media personality, “beloved” by TV followers, etc.) to offer herself as a candidate.

In 2018 and going forward a woman may be just right especially since she is likeable (and not Hillary Clinton), is not connected to a foundation with all kinds of shady donors (Hillary Clinton), has not misused her e-mail account and potentially put at risk national security (Hillary Clinton), and has NEVER refused to send rapid deployment force to an American Embassy (Benghazi) under attack by terrorists!

Also, she has a HUUUUGE following which is what got Trump the nomination according to focus groups and polls, and may also have helped him get elected as a personality (not as someone necessarily taking specific positions on policy). Like Reagan she is a great communicator, great speaker, and can touch the hearts of people. Her cooking recipes and her magazine “O” are fabulous too!

As we look at the field of Democrats that are on our list of potential contenders former Vice President Joe Biden could compete with her in primaries but New York Senator Gillibrand, Senator Bernie Sanders, unknown but “very smart and up-and-coming” contenders like Congressman Moulton from MA and others just have no shine no charisma compared to her. So I have heard Democrats in the past 24 hours who are excited about seeing Oprah run.

For Republicans, she would represent an opportunity because of her lack of experience and because it’s not certain if voters are ready for another African American or minority candidate. Also, there is still “gender bias” – are Americans ready for a woman as President? – which may hurt her. And my focus group of 21 advanced students yesterday said that perhaps Americans have learned their lesson with Pres Trump and will NEVER AGAIN vote for someone who is a celebrity with no political experience.

But for Republicans she is also a huge threat because they have no opposition research on her and therefore not much negative information.

I will add one point. Oprah has a personal “brand.” She is known as a good person and a uniter who is largely well liked by everyone including Republicans. Very few people have a personal “brand” – Donald Trump does as well. This means that she is known for her honesty in sharing her personal life, her hard times, her successes which most politicians don’t have they hide their life.

Also her speech at the Golden Globe awards was very powerful. I was at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004 as an analyst for CNN en Espanol when Barack Obama gave a speech that was powerful and magnificent. People around me said “WOW! He’s going to be president some day.” And that single speech opened the way for him 4 years later to get the nomination and become president! One speech can make all the difference.

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