A few months ago I had the pleasure of seeing Vice President Joe Biden speak. It was for a rally meant to raise awareness about the growing problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Biden has spent a good chunk of his time since serving as Vice President speaking on behalf of the It’s on Us movement and in light of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ rolling back of Obama-era Title IX policies and protections for victims of sexual assault, Biden has felt compelled to work even harder to champion the cause. He made the call to this particular school he was speaking at on the same day of DeVos’ decision, something that can’t be chalked up as a coincidence.
Biden was passionate, he was engaging, he was completely engrossing for almost an hour as he spoke to a gym full of college students in the middle of the afternoon on a brisk November day. After the speech I was one of a handful of people who got to briefly meet him and I tell you, his eyes were alive. They were dancing with energy. When he started talking to the small group I was with that yes, yes we can end sexual assault, I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. The passion in his voice seemed to almost will his call to action to happen. I had often heard about the magnetism and electricity that certain politicians have and for the first time I witnessed it. It was really something to see. I could now clearly understand why people loved him so much and had for so many years.
A little while later, a colleague, who was as enamored with Uncle Joe as I was, spoke almost longingly about the possibility of Biden running for president in 2020.
“Wouldn’t that just be wonderful?” she said.
I did think it would be wonderful, but I wasn’t sure I entirely agreed. The Biden I had just seen appeared unshackled from the restraints of elected office; free to speak and do as he chose. In that light, he looked more powerful to me. His rolled up sleeves weren’t just for show; he really looked like he was ready to do some work, work he might not be able to do as effectively if he were to be slowed down by the office of presidency. It seems almost absurd to say, but a civilian-version of Joe Biden could potentially do more for the country than a president-version of Joe Biden.
It was with these memories in mind that I’ve been scrolling through the numerous reaction pieces and speculatory tweets about the political future of Oprah Winfrey. Following her rousing speech at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, in which she received the Cecil B. DeMille award, a gushing deluge of speculation has crashed onto Monday morning’s shores regarding 2020 and that Oprah will be looking to take on Donald Trump to become the next president. As with Biden, it’s a fun thought, this idea of Oprah becoming president, but again, as with Biden, I’m not sure I’m fully onboard.
For starters, my feelings are the same in regards to Oprah as they are with Biden. I feel she could do more outside of the White House than inside. She wields an enormous amount of influence and power, especially over those voters that any Democratic candidate would need to win over in order defeat Trump in a couple years. As a power broker and influencer, Oprah’s power to sway the 2020 election is unfathomable and will be a valuable resource.
Back in 2007 when she was out campaigning with then-senator Barack Obama, rallies featuring Oprah drew some of the campaign’s biggest crowds, with numbers in the tens of thousands. Oprah campaigned hard for Obama and while it’s impossible quantify the exact effect it may have had, it’s definitely easy to say that it didn’t hurt. She brought some legitimacy to the Obama campaign and helped introduce the country to the young senator from Illinois. Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, that fire wasn’t there when it was her turn, as Oprah offered up only a lukewarm endorsement of the 2016 Democratic nominee, saying that “you don’t have to like her,” but you should “like this country.”
It’s only a matter of time before Democratic contenders start to emerge for the 2020 Presidential election and if she was again playing the role of Key Celebrity Endorser, Oprah’s backing of someone like California senator Kamala Harris could go a long way. Same goes for New Jersey senator Cory Booker. It’s going to be a crowded field heading into 2020 and there will be no shortage of Democrats looking to take their shots at Trump. Oprah could help clear the field and cull the herd. It could save Democrats from devouring each other and sending out a candidate bruised and battered from a heavily-contested primary into a one-on-one campaign versus Trump (or whoever ends up being the Republican nominee.)
Who has more power: the one in charge or the one behind that person, making things happen behind the scenes? I think it depends on those involved. I have no doubt (or at least a little doubt) that Oprah would be a good president. But I’m absolutely certain that as a player behind the scenes, she would be phenomenal.
But let’s say Oprah does run – can her image make it through a full campaign run clean and unblemished? Win or lose, campaigns have become increasingly bloody and dirty in recent years with the special assistance of social media. Twitter was already quick to point out Oprah’s past relationship with Harvey Weinstein. Even the winners emerge with more than a few dings to the armor and skeletons dragged from the closet. Oprah’s approval rating will never be higher than it is today. If she were to run, there’s no way our view of her will still be as high as it was, win or lose. It just doesn’t seem possible. It’s a selfish take, but it’s worth throwing out there. We love our Oprah. If she runs, that Oprah is going to change. It’s inevitable. Are we willing to accept that?
Are we also willing to accept that maybe, just maybe the next President should be someone who has experience in governing? For years, the appeal of someone outside of politics coming in and running things their way has been there and for both Republicans and Democrats, it’s been a tempting one. And then it happened, and then we got Trump. How has that worked out for us or more specifically, how is that not working for us? As report after report surfaces about the challenges of dealing with someone who lacks a basic understanding of governing in America and all that that entails, I think it’s worth making the argument that the last thing America needs is another political novice setting up shop in the Oval Office.
I never fully grasped the stance some people took that Trump having no experience with governing was a positive qualification for a job that entails leading a government. It wasn’t even a matter of political affiliation or Trump itself. It was just an idea that seemed completely backwards to me. Relevant experience is always something you look for in a candidate, regardless of whether it’s for the presidency or the take-out corner. I still don’t understand why we lost sight of that and personal feelings about Oprah aside, I feel it’s a strike against her if we are going to start talking about her a legitimate candidate.
One of the knocks on President Obama was that he lacked experience to be the Commander-in-Chief. Prior to his election in 2008 he had been a U.S. Senator for only a few years, having served in the Illinois Senate for nearly a decade before that. And while Obama did seem to have some moments where he appeared to be learning on the job, compared to Trump and Oprah, he was a seasoned vet. How can we then say Obama lacked experience and that was a negative, but Trump and Oprah lack experience and that’s a positive? We’re moving the goalposts at a time when they should be simply left alone and if anything, closely guarded.
The bottom line is that if Oprah does decide to run (and for those keeping track, I doubt it) I’d most likely support her. Although part of the reason for that is that I think she’d breeze through the Democratic primary and as far as choices go, she’d be the best one for me personally. But the idea of a celebrity running President again feels dangerous to me. It cheapens the office, it cheapens the process. In no way do I think there’s a parallel to be made between Oprah and Trump, but they are both celebrities and massive brands; lifestyle brands at that. They both sell worldviews and I think there’s an inherent danger there when it comes to someone like that running for President. Substance and fact-based arguments were severely missing in the 2016 election and will continue to be if elections continue to happen without serious politicians, knowledgeable about governing and the laws of the land. Oprah may turn out to be a stealth Constitutional scholar and surprise us all. That’d be great. But it also seems unlikely.
Trump winning seemed unlikely as well, so I suppose as we head into the 2020 election, we’d be best suited to expect anything.
Oprah running? Sure. Natalie Portman running as her Vice President? Let’s do it. Scott Baio or Ted Nugent throwing their respective hats in the ring? I guess so. It’s only fair. It doesn’t make it right, but yes, it is only fair. How about that Sarah Palin comeback we’ve all been waiting for? No? Too far.
Well, it’s nice to know we still have limits.
Whether or not Oprah eventually does decide to run or not, the surprise is gone and ultimately, her inclusion in the race will be a welcome one. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be a good one or even a beneficial one. Some of the biggest mistakes made are ones made because of an ignoring of the past. By the time 2018 and 2019 roll around, we’ll be a much different country and will be wondering how we got there. If we ignore that and just press on, it’ll be hard to find the course correction we need, a course correction that could be helped greatly by influencers on the outside; people like Joe Biden and Oprah Winfrey.
People like Uncle Joe and Oprah, it’s easy to want them to run for President, but maybe that’s not how they’ll be best served. The idea of one of them stepping up to dig us out of the ditch we’re in is endlessly appealing, but I think it’d be better to hand the shovel to someone else, give someone else a chance to do some digging and make their mark and Biden and Oprah flex their muscles somewhere else, where it could maybe be more beneficial.
Or they could both run and the worst problem Democrats have is choosing between the two of them.
Not a bad problem to have I guess.