Oprah Winfrey could be the next president of the United States.
She is a 63-year-old self-made billionaire and a master communicator, well-respected and beloved around the world. After her moving speech at the Golden Globes Sunday night, actress Meryl Streep declared:
Backstage at the Golden Globes, Winfrey said she had no plans to run. But her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, told a Los Angeles Times reporter that “it’s up to the people” and said Winfrey “would absolutely do it,” although he did not specify what she would do.
Two of Winfrey’s friends also said she’s “actively thinking” about 2020, CNN reported Monday morning. Gayle King, Winfrey’s close friend, said on Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning” that she is “intrigued by the idea.”
Donald Trump, another television personality, won. Why not Oprah?
“Arguably Donald Trump is the most famous man in the world,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a never-Trump Republican. Under the new rules of political engagement, “maybe you can only beat a celebrity with another celebrity.”
Her chances of winning? “One hundred percent,” said another Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speculate brazenly. “If she runs for the Democratic nomination, I think it’s over.”
Have we lost our minds? Or are we coming to our senses? All Winfrey did was give an acceptance speech for a lifetime-achievement award. A good speech, yes — “For too long, women have not been heard or believed, if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men” — but just a speech. Still, America seems starved for her brand of optimism after nearly a year of Trump’s dark moods and barbed insults.
“As I have always said, any women who is able to serve should think about how they want to do so — whether it’s women like Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, or, yes, Oprah,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the organization dedicated to supporting pro-choice female candidates.
GOP consultant Ana Navarro was more direct. “Are we really asking ourselves whether a political neophyte, billionaire, media-savvy TV star can become president? America answered that already,” she said. “I don’t know how much she knows about foreign policy or some domestic policy issues. But hell, it’s not like she’d be running against Churchill. She’d be running against Trump.”
Since everyone’s frothing over her undeclared candidacy, let’s game it out. Winfrey emerges from her Montecito, Calif., mansion, declares she’s in the game — and what happens then?
“Running for president is a whole different thing,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and former Obama pollster. “It’s not Hollywood. It’s an ugly, nasty, grueling slog through all of these multiple states. It’s going to unglamorous places and showing up at fish fries. To successfully run, you need several things: money, infrastructure and a niche. That said, I think in this current environment — and I cannot believe I am saying this — but if Oprah would throw her hat in the ring, she would be the front-runner.”
After Trump’s run, celebrity doesn’t seem to be detriment anymore. Celebrity is now a way to do an end run around a deficient primary season.
The typical state’s primary turnout is incredibly low, said Joe Trippi, who was chairman of former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “Something like 7 percent of the voting population made Barack Obama the nominee. When you only have 5, 6, 7 percent of the population voting — we’re not even talking 10 percent — that’s all you need.”
It’s difficult for, say, three governors and a senator to scrap for those percentage points. It’s less difficult, in the social-media age, for someone with established name recognition.
Belcher, the Obama pollster, theorizes that Oprah would probably be a top contender for the first Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. She would “definitely” win South Carolina. Which would lead to a sweep of Georgia, Mississippi and a string of Southern states. Then, it’s all about the general election. Her opponent, in this fake scenario, would be Trump.
So yes, Oprah could win. But does America really want this?
The presidency, in many ways, degrades its holder in the eyes of the public. Having Oprah as a presidential candidate would mean losing her as the beatific personification of the American Dream.
“Not everyone’s a good candidate,” Belcher said. “I’m not saying she’s bad; I don’t think we even know that. But she’s never had to take a punch. She’s never been in that space where people who earn a living by finding dirt on you are now finding dirt on her.”
Would conservatives and the Trump White House seize on the more suspicious chapters of her career, like her promotion of controversial TV Doctors Phil and Oz, or her endorsement of the 2006 self-help book “The Secret,” which convinced millions of people that they could be rich by just wishing hard enough for it? As soon as she finished her speech, Twitter lit up with photos of Winfrey cozying up to disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly abused women for decades.
Winfrey would be risking her stable and lucrative brand, burnished worldwide over the course of 35 years in entertainment, journalism and philanthropy.
America just wants a good show, as Trump’s ascendancy proved, and perhaps there would be no greater bout — not Ali vs. Frazier, not the 1980 Olympic hockey team vs. the Soviets — than Oprah vs. Trump in 2020. But could the media handle it? Could the fractious American public survive it?