Oprah for President?


A lot of people got very excited during the Golden Globe Awards to hear a thoughtful and articulate celebrity discuss important public issues. It’s hard not to see the reaction as in part a backlash against the incoherent ramblings of the “very stable genius” in the White House. In addition, however, Oprah Winfrey’s remarks addressed in a direct, no-nonsense fashion the long-standing cloud of sexual harassment and unequal treatment of women that has characterized the entertainment industry forever.

It’s definitely a talk that people should hear and share. Winfrey’s use of a public platform with millions of viewers to deliver her message was a brilliant choice on her part. She accomplished her task with style, eloquence and inspiration.

Should her Golden Globes speech be seen as the kickoff for a presidential campaign? Winfrey is certainly among the best known and most admired people in the country. Those are assets that any candidate would love to have in their pursuit of a presidential nomination. Are they enough to make her a serious and credible contender for the presidency in 2020?

That question has already generated a national debate.  For many, the stunning contrast to the crass narcissism of Donald Trump makes her a very appealing choice.  Compare a man who apparently doesn’t read at all to a woman who has made books a central part of her public identity.  Trump’s persona is one of conflict and division while Winfrey seems to be much more about building bridges and making connections.

Yet, even many of her strongest admirers question whether her status as a celebrity, not a person who has experience in government, public service or leadership in a large organization, is the right profile for a presidential candidate.  Any evaluation of her qualifications has to look at more that whether she is a better person than Donald Trump.  That’s way too low a bar.

My guess is that the Winfrey “boomlet” will probably fade fairly quickly.  To be a serious presidential candidate, she would have to do more that make great speeches.  She would have to raise money–which she probably would have no difficulty in doing.  She would have to take positions on important issues of the day and have some depth of understanding about them.  The fact that Trump has mastered none of the understanding is not a sufficient measure.  The anti-Trump has to be better, more knowledgable, more thoughtful, able to effectively deliver a coherent message.

Winfrey would also have to start meeting with political leaders, donors, the media and regular voters.  She certainly seems to have the skills to handle the human interactions, but whether she has the temperament, patience and endurance remains to be seen.  To seek the presidency, a person has to really desperately want the office and be willing to put up with a long, hard process that often makes little sense at the moment.

I am less concerned that she is a celebrity than that she is, in political terms, an amateur.  You may think professional politicians have not always served us well and you would certainly be correct.  But many have.  Trump’s non-existent public resume is unique in presidential history.  Our least successful chief executives have struggled because they came unprepared for the job.

There are great risks to turning the levers of power over to people who have neither  experience with, nor understanding of, how government works, what the constraints–formal and informal–are, and the realization that getting things done is more about persuasion than the exercise of formal authority.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has to be seen as an anomaly.  Moreover, his lack of deference to the Constitution, his stunning ignorance about the most basic features of our government system and his lack of perspective, historical and otherwise, should convince all thoughtful voters  never to go down the celebrity path again.

We are at a perilous moment in our history.  If we are successfully to overcome the threat the Trump presidency poses to our most basic values and institutions, we must have leaders who understand and appreciate those values and institutions.

I have no idea whether Oprah Winfrey has those qualities.  I loved her speech and how it inspired many Americans.  If she really wants to be taken seriously as a prospective leader of this country, however, she has a lot of learning and a lot of very hard work to do.  I don’t preclude the possibility that she could do it, but we have too little to go on at this point to judge her as anything other than a smart, articulate individual.

That she gave all of us a moment of hope and inspiration is something we should all cherish.   Let’s not, however, get ahead of ourselves.