This Oprah-for-president thing is fun, right? It doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched, either, does it? I mean the woman gives away cars, for God’s sake! She’s thoughtful, passionate, and has a nuanced understanding of religion. Also, she’s rich, charming, and famous — all things that voters historically like. What more could we possibly want?
Unless, of course, we want political experience. There is that. It’s something we’ve typically prioritized in leaders of the free world.
Until 2016, that is — when the executive branch’s tectonic plates tumbled right off the edge of the map and a man with no political or military history rode the success of a television-show-based-on-a-catchphrase straight to the White House. Trump was crude, brash, ugly in word choice and worldview, and had countless ties to unsavory people. He also had absolutely nothing that would indicate he’d be qualified to manage a nation. He wasn’t even particularly adept at managing employees within his own company.
And yet, we voted for him. We being Americans. Distance yourself from that statement all you want, but the United States of America — taken as a whole and functioning under the rules of our democracy — elected Donald Trump to the highest office in the land.
So does political experience truly matter to us? Does it really?
This question of experience mattering is actually bifurcated:
- Does experience matter to voters during a presidential election?
- Does experience matter in that, once elected, it helps the president better understand and grasp the office they hold?
Both questions are valid. The answer to the first seems to be a clear “no.” At least not to Republican and conservative voters in 2016. Democratic and liberal voters tend to hold experience in higher regard, historically speaking. But would they make an exception if Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and entrepreneur, ran against Donald Trump, reality show host and sitting president? Oh, most definitely.
The second question is trickier. Let’s do a quick case study on our least experienced president ever:
- He’s attacked enemies via Twitter over crowd size, electorate size, nuclear button size, etc.
- He’s attacked the media virtually non stop for anything less than flattering coverage.
- He’s attacked his own constantly revolving cast of cabinet members and advisors.
- He attacked the citizens of the United States in Puerto Rico.
- He’s attacked American athletes for kneeling before football games.
- He’s attacked his long-since-defeated opponent, over and over and over.
- He’s attacked… well, just about everyone. (Except for white supremacists.)
Score one for U.S. Presidents “having some modicum of prior political experience, thereby proving their temperament,” amirite?
Of course this is a failed argument. Trump isn’t the way he is because he never held office. Though it might be said that we the people would have noticed his behavior sooner if it wasn’t being neatly packaged for us by a TV studio. If he’d been a state governor, senator, or even city council member, we’d have some track record to judge him by. His flaws are more evident now that he doesn’t have anyone scoring his soundbites with dramatic music before cutting to commercial. The same would hold for Oprah, to at least some degree.
Because though we love Oprah, she’s not perfect. She’s got blind spots just like any other potential candidate and will have to answer to scrutiny. She’s a persistent fan of snake oil salesmen, for example. She repeatedly gave a platform to the anti-science movement (particularly when it’s helped other famous people promote their #brands). She values pop psych and self-help over focusing on the failed structures that keep upward mobility rates low. She’s as down on taxes as most rich people, buys into the prosperity gospel, and is prone to wild boasts about her extreme wealth.
So while she absolutely exudes grace and human warmth and kindness, we can probably all chill on the “Oprah is everything” tip. She’s a person and a long, grueling presidential campaign could reveal her clay feet.
Still… that’s a hell of a speech right? Is anyone better at reaching across the void and giving the gift of connection? Wouldn’t that be a fun quality to have in the President? Just imagine if she were elected: We’d have the warmest fireside chats and most feeling-filled state-of-the-union addresses ever.
But soon there’d be the difficult choices. Syria. Yemen. Israel and Palestine. The fight against terrorism at home and abroad. The economy. Cap and trade. The job of president is undoubtedly difficult, and while anyone could technically do it, they might not be equipped to do it well.
If Oprah is elected in 2020, we’ll know this: All bets for the future of the presidency are off. The Rubicon will have been crossed. We, the United States of America, will officially be the nation that values celebrity charm (however each party chooses to interpret that phrase) over qualifications when deciding on the highest office in the land. Which is why this tweet imagining our presidential future is so funny/tragic.
Democrats and Republicans would be on equal footing in this regard too. Both would have shown that they were willing to take a risk on someone wholly unproven in the political realm. Where do things go from there? Are we ready to officially be the country where the cult of personality trumps experience? Where the cool kids leapfrog over those working their way up the rungs of government, fighting for the electorate along the way?
I’m not saying that an Oprah presidency would be catastrophic. Certain celebrities surely have ideas that would make them good presidents. After all, the reverse argument — that celebrities are vapid and should not speak to political and social issues — is obviously absurd. Celebrities have led both the #MeToo movement and the #BLM kneeling protests. They deserve a seat at the table. Dismissing them from political conversations out of hand is idiotic.
But before Oprah 2020 and The Rock 2024, we ought to consider a middle ground between the power of experience vs. the force of fame. Like so many decisions, it will come down to values. For Democrats, the next election cycle might reveal the value of the real time on-the-job practice that people like senators, members of the House of Representatives, governors, etc. have. Can they hold a candle to the megawatt magnetism and massive platform of Oprah?
It might be interesting to explore what conservatives — who won the 2016 elections by any statistical measure — would say about this quandary. Has Trump’s outsider status and fame proven to be assets? Has his absolute lack of political expertise hurt him? Or are his stumblings completely connected to who he is and not connected to experience at all?
None of this is to say Oprah shouldn’t run in 2020. If she does, she’ll likely galvanize two long-neglected voter bases — women and African Americans — and, if Trump’s rating trends continue, she’d almost certainly win. She’s a big-hearted human and big-heartedness is a good thing. But that win would make a pretty major statement about who we are, as a nation.
An Oprah win would seem to declare once and for all that famous people are the best of us. Because while Oprah seems kind and caring and heartfelt, there are a lot of kind, caring, heartfelt people (and women of color) in this country. They run charities. They start restaurants for refugees. They teach. They are all exactly as experienced governing a nation as Oprah Winfrey. Yet, none have Seth Meyers clamoring for them to launch a presidential ticket with Tom Hanks. Neither do also-charismatic women of color who may run in 2020 like, say, Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris. Both of whom are actually engaged in the tough work of preparing to lead a nation. Sadly, all this Oprah excitement could overshadow their burgeoning campaigns.
Maybe that’s where we’re at now: Celebrities are the rulers of the oligarchy and the rest of us are just watching and tweeting about them. Winfrey-for-President would assert that there are no longer multiple American dreams, but one: Get famous. Let everything else fall into place from there. Trump has already proven that celebrity can beat experience in the race to the White House. If Oprah runs in 2020, Americans will have another chance to ask, “Yes, but should it?”