At the Golden Globes Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey delivered an electrifying speech on behalf of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment that touched on the empowerment of women at all levels of society. For many, it was a moment of desperately needed catharsis in response to a lifetime of predation by men like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, delivered by a self-made woman of color who is easily their superior in savvy, intelligence and grace.
The moment instantly went viral. It also led to a multiplicity of calls, from author Anne Rice to a now-deleted tweet from NBC, for Oprah to run for president in 2020. For her part, Winfrey reportedly has told confidants that she’s actively considering the notion and has hinted before that she might run. It’s certainly no accident that her speech Sunday touched on political themes and sounded presidential, striking cords on both social and economic advancement.
So… Oprah for president?
The notion isn’t as immediately silly or unserious as some may consider it. Nominating a billionaire celebrity for president no longer has the stigma it might have in the past. That’s not only because of Trump’s electoral success, but also because of the realities of modern hyperpartisanship. Americans have a deeply culturally ingrained idea that we vote for a person and not a party. But the truth is that most of us vote almost exclusively on party line for the biggest races; it takes egregious circumstances (like, say, nominating an accused child molester) to break that pattern. Candidates in the modern era, meanwhile, tend to gravitate to the party line regardless of their backgrounds once they reach office.
Even Donald Trump, who famously ran an iconoclastic campaign that broke with GOP orthodoxy on many core issues, has actually governed on a policy level as a conventional far-right Republican despite his embarrassing tweets, authoritarian tendencies and the maelstrom of chaos in the White House. There is little reason to believe a President Winfrey would not do likewise on the Democratic side, governing as a fairly conventional liberal. And unlike Trump, she has enough respect for civil servants and for the praxis of government institutions to keep all the basic wheels of state moving.
So if Oprah mounted a campaign and showed promise in polling and on the stump, it would be a terrible idea not to take her seriously and reject her out of hand based on some Sorkinesque fantasy of wonks in the Oval Office hammering out technocratic details based on decades of deep policy experience. That is rarely how presidencies function in practice, and it’s certainly not how campaigns do.
But the challenges we face as a society demand more than just a conventional approach from a candidate learning how to implement public policy on the fly. Climate change is an existential emergency for humankind that cries out for considered yet radical approaches from people who have spent years pondering how to craft and sell those solutions. While it’s not impossible for a self-made billionaire to tackle rising inequality – after all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself sprang from one of America’s most privileged families – it’s questionable whether such a person would take the political risks required to snatch the ill-gotten gains out of the hands of the idle wealthy and return it to the working and professional classes who created it. It’s possible a President Winfrey could be transformational in these ways, but it’s likelier that she would spend most of her time learning the ropes of public service.
The bruising tests of a long campaign and her choice of advisers might be enough indication of whether a President Winfrey would take the sort of actions the moment requires, and obviously the partisan makeup of Congress would play an important role in helping or hindering her objectives. It is arguable that but for the takeover by obstructionist Republicans in 2010, Barack Obama might have been an even more transformational president than he already was.
But with so many experienced public servants – from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren – already in the likely running for president on the Democratic side, it’s not clear that taking a chance on a celebrity candidate with no prior background in public office would be worth the risk. These candidates have the ability to be equally inspiring to women and girls all across the country without carrying the concomitant risks that a Winfrey candidacy might bring.
In sum, Oprah Winfrey would probably make for a better president than her detractors fear. But without a compelling reason to choose her over far more qualified women and candidates of color, it’s not immediately obvious what the advantages would be.