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January 24, 2018

Winfrey Wouldn't Win

An Oprah presidential run would do little to excite potential millennial voters.

A couple of weeks ago at the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment” and gave an inspiring and heart-wrenching acceptance speech. I woke up the next morning to headlines from every major newspaper hypothesizing about a Winfrey run for president.  

A recent AOL poll conducted after her speech found that 54 percent of adult registered voters don’t want Oprah to run for president, yet in a race between her and President Donald Trump, 50 percent of polled voters would vote for Winfrey, while only 39 percent would vote to reelect the current president. Likewise, I would, in a heartbeat, choose Winfrey for president over Trump, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.  

Don’t get me wrong: The speech was a good one. Winfrey was poised, strong, and articulate. She referenced the importance of the press, civil rights, jobs, and, most centrally, the #MeToo movement. 

She even invoked Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech, paying homage to the woman who came so close to penetrating the glass ceiling. Clinton famously said, “And to all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” Winfrey, echoing her rhetoric, replied last week, “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon.” Many speculate that the phrase “a new day is on the horizon” will become a campaign slogan, and, indeed, it certainly has a similar ring as Clinton’s “Stronger Together” or Obama’s “Yes We Can.”  

Winfrey’s speech understandably prompted a standing ovation. Most members of her audience had tears in their eyes, if they weren’t visibly crying. If this was a deliberate first step toward a campaign, she has already won the support of people including Roxane GayJoy Reid, and Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama.  

The speech was undoubtedly presidential—but that doesn’t mean she should be president. 

Winfrey lacks the public service and legislative experience that all presidents should have. In the sphere of entertainment, she has done it all. She is certainly an activist, playing an important role as a philanthropist for causes, including girls’ education in South Africa and relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Similar to how a political figure like Obama might not be especially competent at creating and growing a media empire from scratch, an entertainment icon like Oprah is uniquely unqualified to lead our executive branch, write and sign legislation, engage in international diplomacy, and lead our military forces.  

In 2016, the Democratic Party nominated someone for the presidency who had the experience, qualifications, career, and temperament to be the president. Democrats need to stay true to that ideal. Clinton lost for several reasons, but none of them had to do with the extent to which she was qualified for the job. Winfrey is a beloved national figure who has the temperament and apparent political commitments to be the Democratic nominee, but she does not have the most important part of the package: governing experience.  

In most ways, Winfrey is nothing like Donald Trump, but a Winfrey presidency would sanctify the growing performativity of the office of the president and would set a dangerous precedent for the future of our country’s government. There are so many other up-and-coming, progressive politicians who would undoubtedly do a better job. The key to long-term Democratic success isn’t one inspiring campaign; it’s emboldening a generation of experienced Democratic leaders who can get the job done once they’re in office.  

And, especially for those currently toiling away at public policy and political science readings and who envision future political careers, a Winfrey presidency would only further suggest that national political office is territory for only the rich and famous. Winfrey might be able to excite voters in a singular election, but there is nothing particularly exciting about a political future open to billionaires, and billionaires alone. 

And perhaps most importantly, I’m not convinced Winfrey would excite the Democratic base into fervent action. Students on college campuses and recent graduates will have an enormous impact on the next presidential election. Polling data from the 2016 election indicates that 55 percent of millennials supported the Democratic Party, while only 37 percent supported the Republican Party. However, another poll which was conducted among 14–17 year olds, reported that 34 percent would have voted for Trump, 31 percent for Clinton, and another 31 percent wouldn’t have voted at all. I predict that a race between Trump and Winfrey would cause only more disenchantment among young voters, who, given their disproportionate support for Bernie Sanders, already seem fed up with the influence that the wealthy have over politics. It’s hard to imagine even the most passionate UC Dems on campus taking a Winfrey candidacy seriously. 

None of this is to say that Winfrey should exit the world of politics. Following her speech at the Golden Globes, she has the potential to play an important role in the next presidential election, not as a candidate, but as a fierce advocate for the issues that matter. To truly help the Democratic Party, Winfrey should throw her eloquence, wealth, and social following behind the next Democratic nominee to help him or her capture the executive office. 

Alexa Perlmutter is a first-year in the College.

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