Nearly two decades before US President Donald Trump ran for office, he semi-seriously said on air that talk show host Oprah Winfrey would be his “first choice” for a running mate and Vice President, if he should ever run for President.
Seth Meyers, the master of ceremonies at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 7, recently stirred the pot in his opening monologue when he said, “In 2011, I told some jokes about our current president at the White House Correspondents Dinner, jokes about how he was unqualified to be president. And some have said that night convinced him to run. And if that’s true, I would just like to say, ‘Oprah, you will never be president.’” Following Cecil B. de Mille awardee Oprah Winfrey’s powerful, statesmanly speech later that evening, what began as a hashtag — #Oprah2020 — and a few jokes on Twitter, escalated to full-blown speculation of her chances of landing in the West Wing. So strong it is that even its current occupant was recently prompted for a response. “I like Oprah but I don’t think she’s going to run,” President Trump told reporters earlier this week, adding that it would be “a lot of fun” to go up against her and that he’d beat her anyway.
Winfrey’s longtime partner, Stedman Graham, further stoked the mood in a suggestion to The Los Angeles Times on January 8 that she would “absolutely do it,” adding that such matters are “up to the people.” While CBS This Morning host and Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King clarified on Tuesday that Graham had misheard the reporter’s question, took it to mean, ‘Would she make a good president?’ and replied, ‘Absolutely, she would,’ yet she stopped short of conveying that Winfrey may have definitively shut the door on the possibility.
Winfrey, a media mogul and philanthropist, has been an extremely well known public personality in the US for a generation as a result of her reigning The Oprah Winfrey Show which aired for 25 seasons from 1986 to 2011 and featured a massive cluster of notable star appearances. She commands a name recognition and star power that rivals and supersedes Donald Trump. While she has given no official signal of contemplating a presidential bid and has disavowed such a possibility in the past, this has done little to discourage the theorising in that direction.
Referring to Winfrey’s speech, veteran actor Meryl Streep who was present among the audience members, told the BBC that the former had “the voice of a leader”. “I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice,” Streep told Washington Post. Winfrey has also recently received the endorsement of director Steven Spielberg. “I think Oprah Winfrey would make an absolutely brilliant president,” the multiple Oscar-winning director told the Guardian on Thursday, referring to her as a “unifying figure” who for 35 years has been “building bridges between different ideologies and different points of view.”
It isn’t just the Hollywood, however, that is running wild about a possible Winfrey presidency. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, doesn’t think it can’t happen. “I slept on it and came to the conclusion that the Oprah thing isn’t that crazy,” he tweeted. Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, told Vox, “People will take her seriously not because she is a celebrity but because of who she is — because she’s genuinely a self-made success story and because she’s made a career out of helping other people”.
Oprah: Sounder on economics than Bernie Sanders, understands Middle America better than Elizabeth Warren, less touchy-feely than Joe Biden, more pleasant than Andrew Cuomo, more charismatic than John Hickenlooper.#ImWithHer
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) January 8, 2018
Constance Grady of Vox envisions #Oprah2020 in terms of an appealing anti-Trump fantasy:
“A figure of non-controversial warmth, wisdom, and empathy; of post-racial unity and post-feminist idealism; of the beloved Obama era — that this figure could take control of the country, affect change, and fix everything,” she writes.
This isn’t the first time the possibility of Winfrey harboring presidential aspirations has been entertained in the public fora. When asked by Bloomberg TV’s David Rubenstein in early 2017 whether she’s given any thought to running for the presidency, Winfrey responded, “I never considered the question even a possibility. I just thought, ‘Oh … oh?’”. Before Trump, she said, she didn’t think she had the experience or knew enough to consider it. In September 2017, Winfrey tweeted out a column by the New York Post’s John Podhoretz that called her Democrats’ best hope for 2020.
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) September 28, 2017
From Presidents John F Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama, it’s clear that charm and charisma have traditionally mattered to American voters in choosing their leaders. Connecting with audiences has undeniably been Winfrey’s strength. She also appears as the natural opposite to Trump’s bellicosity. Speaking to the Vox, Media Studies professor at University of Colorado and author of ‘The Age of Oprah’ Janice Peck explained the draw of Oprah, “She’s identified as this warm, caring, super successful, and absolutely non-controversial figure”. Significantly, she has a loyal following among white women and African-American minorities, both of which are crucial alliances for the Democratic party.
But rousing speeches are generally not made up of sound policy substance. Many commentators see the outpouring of support for #Oprah2020 overarchingly as a merging of politics and entertainment in the minds of Americans. A common theme in the reactions of those who do not wish to encourage a potential presidential bid for Oprah is along the lines of some of the same criticisms as those made for Donald Trump. Winfrey is a complete outsider to the ins and outs of American politics and lacks any experience in domestic and foreign policy. While Trump has emphatically shown that experience is optional for clinching a win, his track record on the job can hardly boast of a smooth sailing.
“She may, in fact, be what Trump pretends to be — a self-made business success story whose words resonate across the country,” wrote Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, in a piece called “The Case Against President Oprah”. “But Democrats don’t want to improve on Trump,” he continued. “They want to reverse him.”
“I love Oprah — love her! — but she is not ready or qualified to be the leader of the free world,” Sophia Nelson, author and political writer, told Politico. “Governor of California maybe, or a U.S. senator, perhaps. An ambassador, certainly. All great pre-qualifications for the presidency,” she added.
“President Winfrey … underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life,” wrote race commentator and writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in a New York Times editorial.
Nobody knows at this point if Oprah 2020 is realistic. In summation, the gist for the time being is: “I think one of the arguments for Oprah is 45,” American Congresswoman and democrat Nancy Pelosi told the Washington Post, referring to Trump by his rank as the 45th president of the United States, “I think one of the arguments against Oprah is 45.”