Oprah 2020? Why Americans are dreaming of a President Winfrey

She rules out a bid, but this week ‘President Winfrey’ became more than an idea

Oprah Winfrey speaking at then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s rally in Des Moines, Iowa, 2007. Photograph: Ramin Rahimian/File Photo/Reuters

Oprah Winfrey speaking at then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s rally in Des Moines, Iowa, 2007. Photograph: Ramin Rahimian/File Photo/Reuters

 

At the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Oprah Winfrey soaked up the kind of adoration that would make a political leader weak at the knees. In a room packed with Hollywood’s aristocracy, Winfrey – becoming the first black woman to win the Cecil B DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment – commanded the crowd like Demosthenes when he delivered the Third Philippic.

In a rousing, heartfelt acceptance speech, Winfrey thanked the Hollywood Press Association with the addendum, “We all know that the press is under siege these days.”

She paid tribute to her mother, connecting the dots between the ageless struggles of anonymous, hard-working women, and the celebrity-studded #MeToo movement, for which almost the entire room showed solidarity with by dressing in black threads in protest.

And she singled out the story of Recy Taylor, the recently deceased African-American woman who, in Alabama in 1944, was kidnapped while leaving church and brutally gang-raped by six white men, none of whom was ever prosecuted.

“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” Winfrey asserted. “Their time is up.”

Barack Obama with his wife, Michelle, and host Oprah Winfrey at a campaign rally in 2007. Photograph: Brian Snyder/File Photo/Reuters
Barack Obama with his wife, Michelle, and host Oprah Winfrey at a campaign rally in 2007. Photograph: Brian Snyder/File Photo/Reuters

The moment she stepped off stage, there was a sense of a seismic shift not just in entertainment, but broader political discourse. The speech was transcribed and published in its entirety by outlets such as the New York Times, CNN and irishtimes.com.

As the camera panned around the room, how many of the rapturously applauding members of the American entertainment industry – forever seen as a stronghold of liberal thinking, currently wounded by the Harvey Weinstein scandal – had the same thought: “Yeah, she’s running.”

The Temptation

President Oprah Winfrey. The concept has long been touted. It’s hard to pinpoint the germination of the idea that Winfrey could one day top the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket. It has existed in casual chitchat, in her fans’ cheery fantasies and in gently lobbed questions to the star herself about a potential career in politics.

The idea of Oprah in The White House certainly predates the reality of the current “leader of the free world”, who in November 2016 answered the question of whether a wealthy celebrity with no solid political experience could triumph in an election. Even before her speech, Golden Globes host Seth Meyers joked about the Winfrey presidency dream.

Oprah Winfrey onstage during the 2016 Essence Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for 2016 Essence Festival
Oprah Winfrey onstage during the 2016 Essence Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for 2016 Essence Festival

“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. So if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes!”

Winfrey surely represents a tempting choice for Democrats to take on Donald Trump in 2020 (assuming he runs). Here’s a chance to fight celebrity with celebrity, deploying a star whose influence and popularity eclipses even that of the likely Republican candidate.

Hillary Clinton’s status as arguably the most qualified candidate of all time in the 2016 race was not enough for her to win it. And while Clinton came with certain baggage, her failure to out-qualify her opponent could dissuade the Democrats from putting a safe and steady nominee – say, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as one of the party’s loudest voices – up against Trump.

Donald Trump and Winfrey ringside at Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks boxing match in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1988. Photograph: Jeffrey Asher/ Getty Images
Donald Trump and Winfrey ringside at Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks boxing match in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1988. Photograph: Jeffrey Asher/ Getty Images

Will she run?

Still, a Winfrey presidency remains a fanciful notion. She has been consistent in her assertions that she does not want to run for any public office. For her to make an assault on Washington would require a spectacular turnaround. Aside from a quote or two from friends and peers teasing out the possibility, there’s little solid evidence to indicate she’s preparing a political move.

Nor is anybody quite sure what Oprahism would look like. She has long been an advocate of gender equality and LGBT rights. On immigration she has endorsed “a clear path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants.

Trump lacked a clear policy set, but voters knew what they were getting – nationalist sentiments, anti-immigration doctrine and promises of a wall on the Mexican border, which stretches coast to coast.

On day one of her candidacy, Winfrey would have to put a significant amount of meat on the bones of her own political ideology.

Winfrey speaks after accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC/Handout
Winfrey speaks after accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC/Handout

Yet Oprah’s chief strength could be not just that she’s a Washington outsider – she’s a Washington outsider who people generally accept as wise, caring and trustworthy.

She has overcome hardships to become a self-made billionaire, the kind of unlikely success that Americans like to perceive as something that’s distinctly of their own nation. But she’s also a powerful person who has used that power to uplift repressed communities, improve literacy and forge an impressive humanitarian record.

In this regard Winfey’s motivation for running could be pitched as the inverse of Trump’s self-centred candidacy. Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, reignited an old rumour that Trump never expected to win in 2016 and ran simply to boost his own profile.

Winfrey’s reputation for altruism and moral righteousness make it difficult to pin such charges on her (though enemies may try). She can’t be accused of being a career politician either. Any tilt at the presidency will probably occur because she genuinely wants to improve the state of her country. That’s an impactful proposal.

A portrait of Oprah Winfrey upon becoming co-anchor of Eyewitness News in Baltimore, Maryland, 1978. Photograph: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
A portrait of Oprah Winfrey upon becoming co-anchor of Eyewitness News in Baltimore, Maryland, 1978. Photograph: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Yet there are questions we can’t yet answer. How would President Winfrey respond to an international crisis or the outbreak of conflict? What would her relationship with Vladimir Putin look like?

President Obama was seen by many as a knowledgeable and decent person, too, yet his time in power was partially defined by the number of drone strikes that occurred over the eight years. Would Oprah Winfrey be as freewheeling with weapons?

Liberal

The increased focus of a Winfrey presidency also symbolises the elevation of black American women as the paradigm for liberal values. Ninety-eight per cent of black women voted for the Democrat Doug Jones over alleged serial child molester Roy Moore in a bitterly contested Senate race in Alabama in 2017, leading to the #blackwomen hashtag.

Ninety-five per cent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (that the majority of white women still voted for Trump after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was a bitter blow for Clinton). At the ballot box and in broader US culture, minority communities, particularly black women, are carrying the weight for equality, civil rights and social justice.

As the activist and writer Ashley Nkadi has written in The Root: “Every time there is something good in this world – know that black women probably did it first, said it first, seent it first. Someone was so sure about this that they put it on a T-shirt. Conversely, most negative things in this world, black women tried to save you from.” Nkadi also points out that it was Tarana Burke, a black woman, who created the #MeToo movement years before its recent burst of popularity.

Yes she can

So can Oprah win? Yes she can. Trump’s victory proved that political experience and saying the right thing matter little to many weighing up the viability of candidates (“I don’t know if America is ready for another celebrity billionaire president,” opined Warren this week, but who can predict what voters want after all we’ve seen?).

When the US voted for Trump, it was partly a rejection of Washington elitism. But it was also partly a rejection of multicultural democracy and of the US’s history of welcoming immigrants seeking to enrich their lives. For his supporters, Trump said what they thought privately but could never utter. His ongoing war against the media and establishment enemies still resonates with his base.

Winfrey’s potential base includes voters who see immigrant rights and progressive values as key pillars of American identity. But it’s also made up of people itching to get behind anybody who opposes Trump.

For Winfrey the stakes are high. For her, there can’t be the glorious defeat that Trump perhaps once envisioned for himself.

The ongoing battle of the US’s soul will stretch into 2020. Should Winfrey decide to run, that would surely be her core motivation.

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