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Oprah 2020, explained

The case for — and against — President Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey at the 2018 Golden Globes.
Oprah Winfrey at the 2018 Golden Globes.
NBCUniversal/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

What began as a hashtag — #Oprah2020 — and a few jokes on Twitter has escalated to full-blown theorizing of Oprah Winfrey’s chances of landing in the Oval Office.

After Winfrey’s powerful speech at the 2018 Golden Globes on Sunday, even President Donald Trump weighed in on the prospect, and his daughter, Ivanka, tried to ride the Oprah wave. An idea that a couple of years ago would have seemed all but impossible now has plenty of political observers asking: Why not?

Oprah certainly possesses a level of star power that rivals, even surpasses, Trump’s. She has wide name recognition and is well-liked, especially among coalitions important to Democrats — women, African Americans. Some, however, are already begging Winfrey not to run. America shouldn’t be a place where celebrity is a prerequisite for politics, they say, and we don’t need another political novice in the White House.

Responding to the buzz, President Trump on Tuesday said Winfrey’s hypothetical campaign would be “lots of fun.” “I did one of her last shows. ... I like Oprah. I don’t think she’s going to run,” he said.

At least some in the political world seem to be taking the Oprah 2020 idea seriously — showing just how much Trump’s election has rewritten the rules of celebrities in politics. Oprah proved in 2008 that she has plenty of political power; her Golden Globes speech has sparked debate about how she should use it.

Oprah delivered one heck of a speech

“I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Winfrey declared while accepting the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement on Sunday. (You can read the full transcript of the speech on Vox.) While there has long been mild speculation that she might harbor political aspirations, the nearly 10-minute speech brought those whispers to a roar.

Oprah opened her address describing a scene of herself sitting on the linoleum floor of her mother’s house in Milwaukee as a child in 1964, watching Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor.

“I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people’s houses,” she said. Poitier in 1982 received the same Cecil B. DeMille Award that Winfrey was given on Sunday.

“It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given the same award,” she said.

Oprah, a talk show host, actress, producer, philanthropist, and all-around media heavyweight, spoke of her own career achievements but also placed herself in a historical context of race and class and the current context of gender and women’s rights. She recounted the story of civil rights hero Recy Taylor, who died just days before the awards show, and emphasized the pervasiveness of gender bias in Hollywood and all walks of life.

“When that new day finally dawns, it will be because a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too,’ again,” she closed.

Soon after her speech, NBC fired off an eyebrow-raising tweet reading, “Nothing but respect for OUR future president.”

(On Monday, the network removed the tweet and said it was sent by a third-party agency in reference to a joke made during the Golden Globes monologue.)

The network wasn’t the only one to pick up on the theme.

“[I don’t know] if she’s running, but who could count her out if she did,” tweeted Nate Cohn, a politics writer for the New York Times’s data journalism section, the Upshot.

Alex Burns, a political reporter at the Times, openly pondered which Democrats would really give Oprah a run for her money.

Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau said dismissing her out of hand “seems short-sighted.”

Winfrey was told backstage after her speech that “Oprah 2020” was circulating on Twitter and was asked whether she plans to run. “I don’t, I don’t,” she said.

CNN on Monday reported that Winfrey is “actively thinking” about running for president, citing two of her close friends. NBC News, citing a source who says he or she has heard from the billionaire herself, reported Winfrey has no intention of running. “It’s not happening,” the source said.

In other words, nobody really knows.

This isn’t the first time Oprah’s name has been floated as a potential contender for the presidency: 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?’” She said before Trump she didn’t think she had the experience or know enough to do it. “Now I’m thinking, ‘Oh.’”

In September, Winfrey promoted a column by the New York Post’s John Podhoretz calling her Democrats’ best hope for 2020 from her Twitter account.

Gayle King, Oprah’s best friend, said her comments to Rubenstein were “clearly a joke” and that she would never run. Oprah herself told the Hollywood Reporter in a June podcast that she will “never run for public office.”

But Sunday night, her longtime partner Stedman Graham was singing a different tune. “It’s up to the people,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “She would absolutely do it.”

King on Tuesday walked back Graham’s remarks, saying that he would “never so cavalierly say” that Oprah would run for president. She added that Winfrey isn’t “actively considering” a run for president but didn’t completely shut the door. “I do think she’s intrigued by the idea,” she said.

To be sure, Oprah could start smaller as well. A Twitter account has popped up calling for her to run for the US Senate in Tennessee. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has announced he isn’t seeking reelection in 2018, and Winfrey spent part of her childhood in the state and attended Tennessee State University.

The case for Oprah

Winfrey will be 65 in 2020, several years younger than Trump. If Trump’s victory taught us anything, it’s that political experience isn’t exactly a precursor for landing the top job in the United States.

“Yes, we can! Am I the only one who had that feeling? It feels like Oprah 2020,” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah remarked on Monday, reacting to Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech. “I can see how Oprah seems like the perfect opponent for Donald Trump — I mean, she’s everything he’s not. She’s black. She’s a woman. She likes to read. They’re the complete opposite!”

When it comes to name recognition, and star power, Oprah is possibly unmatched. She has been a familiar, and welcomed, presence in American households for decades, is largely a uniting figure, and appeals to a number of coalitions vital to Democratic success — women, African Americans, perhaps young people.

While she lacks experience in politics, her career trajectory demonstrates that she is an exceptionally talented individual with an ability to inspire, lead, and create, and change isn’t a bad thing to many voters on the left and right.

“Both President Obama and President Trump won in part by being perceived as non-typical candidates who could change politics,” Jim Messina, campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, told Politico, which surveyed various political pundits and observers on Oprah’s presidential prospects.

“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,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, told the publication.

With what Forbes estimates to be a net worth of $2.8 billion, Winfrey could potentially self-fund her campaign — not to say that she wouldn’t have plenty of eager donors. (Former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub pointed out that whoever runs for the White House in 2020 should divest their assets, as President Trump has not.)

As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten noted on Twitter, Winfrey is a popular figure. A 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found that 52 percent of American voters, including 72 percent of Democrats, view her favorably, versus 23 percent who do not, or just 7 percent of Democrats.

The poll also found, though, that just 21 percent of voters want her to run, while 69 percent to not.

She has also proven to be a force in presidential politics in the past. While celebrity endorsements have historically been relatively ineffective in swaying votes, Oprah has been the exception to the rule.

Her endorsement of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary is estimated to have generated more than 1 million votes for Obama as well as increased campaign contributions and voter participation, according to research from University of Maryland economists Craig Garthwaite and Tim Moore. (Still, a Gallup poll found that most voters were not swung one way or the other by Winfrey.)

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office in 2009, said that he considered appointing Winfrey to take the Senate seat vacated by Obama after he was elected to the presidency. He said he worried she might not take his call, “because Oprah is Oprah, and I’m only the governor of Illinois.”

Winfrey isn’t the only celebrity to have floated the idea of a White House run. Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show in December that he is “seriously considering” a presidential bid and told GQ earlier in the year it was a “real possibility.”

As odd as it may be to imagine Oprah, The Rock, or any other celebrity on the presidential debate stage, remember there was also a time when Trump on said stage was just as unfathomable.

The case against Oprah

Though some establishment Democrats suggested Winfrey could be taken seriously, political journalists and commentators rushed to argue why she shouldn’t be.

One common theme: Democrats might be overcorrecting and seeking out a figure who will be prone to many of the same criticisms they’ve often launched at Trump. She lacks expertise in foreign or domestic policy and knows little of the ins and outs of American politics, and while she certainly knows how to rile up a crowd, it’s unclear what policy substance lies beneath her rhetoric.

Winfrey has zero political experience, and while the same is true for Trump, it is certainly fair to say that having a novice president has not been, well, 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 an article called “The Case Against President Oprah.”

“But Democrats don’t want to improve on Trump,” he continued. “They want to reverse him. And that’s where governors and senators with deep experience, proven political chops, and an unglamorous sense of normalcy come in.”

Winfrey also hasn’t been subject to the high level of scrutiny politicians often face. As Vox’s Julia Belluz pointed out, she has a long history of enabling junk science.

Moreover, having a celebrity president has been exhausting. Wouldn’t it be nice to go a week, or even a day, without talking about the goings-on in the White House? “But can we let celebrities just be celebrities?” wrote Eve Peyser at Vice. “Or to put it a little more pointedly, have we learned nothing from Donald Trump?”

“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 in their survey.

“As compelling as her speech was … it isn’t clear she has the interest, energy, or commitment to run for the nation’s highest office,” Douglas Schoen, a pollster and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said in the same survey.

Also unclear: any of Winfrey’s political stances. It is safe to assume she is progressive, but her positions on specific policies are not widely known. As Peyser points out, she seems to be pro-Israel, appears Obama-esque in her take on the American dream, and, of course, has been an important force in philanthropy — for example, donating $10 million to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and founding a school for girls in Africa. But we don’t know precisely what she thinks about issues such as health care, foreign policy, or taxes.

Winfrey supported Obama over Clinton in 2008 and somewhat tepidly backed Clinton in 2016. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, she hasn’t been an overly eager political donor, either. She has made donations to Obama, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and a handful of Democratic entities in the past, but she doesn’t appear to have made a political contribution since 2013.

Whether Oprah will ultimately make a run for the White House remains to be seen — but the idea seems at least as plausible now as a Donald Trump presidency did in summer 2015.