Here’s a confession: I’ve never watched “Oprah.”
Still, since I’ve been in a waking state for much of the last few decades, I’m of course aware of the prominence she’s achieved in American culture and society, and the high regard in which so many hold her. That’s why I take absolutely seriously the idea that Oprah Winfrey could win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and even take the White House.
One suggestive data point is already out. In a new poll, she tops President Trump by an impressive ten percentage points as a presidential choice. And as many observers have pointed out, unless the field of likely Democratic White House hopefuls changes markedly in the next two or so years (and we’re of course still awfully early in the presidential cycle, so don’t rule out that possibility by any means), Winfrey would face unusually flawed opponents.
Indeed, at this point, the leading Democratic contenders look to be Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Whatever you think of them as individuals either personally or politically, all three are septuagenarians, and two look to be well to the Left of a critical mass of American voters. And underscoring their vulnerability is how enthusiastically so many Democrats and progressives have reacted to the idea of “Oprah 2020.”
More reasons for optimism about a Winfrey White House run:
>She’s rich as Croesus and would have no trouble raising outside money.
>She has ocean-wide name recognition.
>She has made a career largely on her matchless ability to “feel the pain” of Main Street Americans (a skill that former President Bill Clinton so effectively conveyed).
>Mr. Trump has already broken through the celebrity “glass ceiling.”
>Similarly, she shows no evidence of being a whiz on policy issues, but no one associated such expertise with candidate Trump, either. And plenty of veteran Democratic- and liberal leaning academics and other specialists would no doubt flock to her cause and give her all the tutoring she needs for a campaign.
>Like the president, she can boast real business success.
Obviously, Winfrey would face important obstacles. I wouldn’t include race or gender on that list. It seems clear to me she’s transcended both categories. But her background isn’t completely scandal-free – as this article makes clear. In this vein, she could well be hurt from the inevitable gushing her candidacy will draw from a Hollywood/celebrity class that much of the public finds completely off-putting.
Perhaps most important, once Winfrey throws her hat in the ring, the halo currently surrounding her will surely fall off, and she’ll start looking more like a conventional politician. Certainly, even though the Mainstream Media will be favorably disposed to her (as they have been to any Trump opponent), she’ll still be under a much harsher spotlight than she has been so far.
Even so, there’s one advantage she’ll have in a 2020 campaign that I believe will be especially important in putting her over the top. And I feel pretty confident about this view even if Mr. Trump enjoys major traditional tailwinds like an economy that keeps performing reasonably well (at least by the standard indicators that attract all the media attention) and U.S. avoidance of military involvement in foreign crises that generate lots of casualties and costs.
Let’s call this advantage “Trump fatigue syndrome.” It’s entirely possible that Americans could enjoy the kinds of safety and prosperity that have often won presidents second terms, and still yearn for a return to normality in their politics and public life – or at least greater normality.
On the one hand, I agree with those (including many Democrats) who insist that the typical voter is much less interested in the “Russia-gate” charges and the other scandals with which the president has been charged than with their personal financial and economic conditions, and their sense of security.
On the other hand, though, I’m confident that those charges, their endless repetition in the media, and the President’s consistently harsh reactions to them and to any and all criticisms, are generating a wearying effect – and starting to erode the broad voter anger that contributed so much to Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory. In other words, outrage can be exhausting even for a die-hard Trump-er, and I expect Trump fatigue to spread as long as the current level of political warfare continues.
Indeed, the recent Alabama U.S. Senate and Virginia gubernatorial elections – won by moderate, soft-spoken Democrats amid an improving economy – indicate that precisely this syndrome is becoming established among relatively well-to-do suburban voters who supported the President in the general election. The persistence of Mr. Trump’s weak national poll ratings during at least decent economic times is another sign that many of his Republican, conservative, and independent backers are tiring of his act.
I also expect that the Democrats and the President’s other opponents know this, and will ensure that the various investigations underway into the actions of Mr. Trump and his family, aides, and other associates continue as long as possible. Trump foes in the media, political, and entertainment worlds are likely to keep baiting him with social media and other attacks for the same reason. The only risk they would run (and it’s not negligible): At some point, the public could well demand that they “put up” (with some specific evidence of major Trump wrongdoing) or “shut up.”
Even so, unless opposition research, or simply the campaign grind, destroys her aura of empathy and moderation and good sense, who better to cure Trump fatigue, at least by promising to restore some peace and quiet and dignity to the White House, than Winfrey?
Strangely, though, my case for Oprah 2020 also indicates that a major turn for the worse in America’s fortunes could greatly reduce her odds of winning the White House. Despite her impressive business career, I’m by no means convinced that many voters would regard Winfrey as an effective recession fighter. It seems even less plausible that she’d be seen as a promising commander-in-chief type if the world starts appearing a lot more dangerous. (Nor does that judgment reflect gender considerations. Unless you think many voters doubted 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s national security experience or toughness?) Even more important, a worsening economy and a more menacing world would appear a great formula for reigniting American political anger – which Winfrey would struggle to mollify.
And don’t forget the biggest threat to a Winfrey candidacy (though it seems to me unlikely at present): Mr. Trump is removed from office, and in the process eliminate the shine from the ideas of celebrity candidacies and presidencies.
But however strongly I feel that, barring a Trump exit, Winfrey could be taking the oath of office in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2021, I’m less sure about two other big questions: Will she start to play a political role on behalf of Democrats in this year’s off-year elections? And will she be able to encourage enough additional Trump fatigue to affect the outcome notably?