Oprah: Everybody Gets (To Be) President
Note: I wrote about this topic when the news of the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and his potential presidential ambitions was making the rounds [LINK]. That piece has a lot of thoughts that are applicable here, but are not repeated here for redundancy.
Oprah Winfrey seems like a very nice lady. Last night, she got an award. And she had a very lovely and emotional speech.
This morning, the latest headlines read "Oprah's Globes speech sparks 2020 presidential speculation" (CNBC), "Oprah for president in 2020: Will she or won't she?" (LA Times), "Oprah Winfrey 'actively thinking' about running for president" (CNN), "Could Oprah Winfrey run for US president – and win?" (Guardian), "Oprah for president in 2020? Here’s everything you need to know" (WaPo), and possibly the worst "Oprah could run. Oprah could win. Is America going insane or coming to its senses?" (also WaPo).
Electing off celebrity isn't a new concept. Back when military men were considered the elites in society, it resulted in Andrew Jackson (bad hombre) and Ulysses S. Grant (corrupt hombre). When Hollywood was the gold standard for socialites, we got Reagan as president (who at least took the intermediate step of being governor of California first) and Schwarzenegger as governor (who started the 'Amend for Arnold' bill to have the birth requirement removed). But with Oprah, it isn't just off celebrity, it's off someone with absolutely no experience whatsoever.
I cringe every time I see a popular celebrity (aka an unqualified person) on a late-night talk show, and some allusion is made to their ability to run for president, followed by the host laughing and the crowd cheering wildly as the celebrity wears a coy smirk. I really hate it. Such passing remarks have been made for years about those who have accrued enough social goodwill, but they used to be just that – passing. Now they have a hint of truth in them, and they're said in a joking-but-not-really-joking manner. It's a testament to Donald Trump that we've been normalized to the manner of thinking that anyone can really be president.
While the founders intentionally created the requirements of the presidency to be broad (be a natural born citizen, be 35 years old, live in the country for at least 14 years) in a homage to the ideal of true democracy, they didn't just stop there. They implemented the electoral college as a check, the legislative and judicial branches as checks, and term limits as checks, in the hopes that should anyone unqualified become president, they wouldn't be able to do too much. So they did have limits, just ones that would take effect after the fact. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the people from doing their job of screening so we don't get to that point in the first place.
For a lot of people, Oprah checks some important boxes. She's a gender minority. She's an ethnic minority. She's wealthy and can fund her own campaign. She's mononymous (like Kanye, Obama, and Kobe) and can't be confused with orpah (a biblical figure which she was actually named on her birth certificate). She's not Mark Zuckerberg. But for me, she fails one important one: she's not a politician.
When (and why) did we lose faith in politicians to be in charge of politics? Why do we not believe that they too can make a difference? "Politicians" don't refer to the people who are already there, but also the young up-and-comers who have put in the time working at their local representative's office, canvassing for an underdog candidate, and gaining experience as they've risen through the ranks. When did we think that someone who was trained in these exact kinds of jobs was somehow corrupted or jaded by the system, to the point where they couldn't possibly do a good job because they're from the 'establishment'? You wouldn't accuse a doctor's way of thinking as stale, just because they were trained in medical school by people who are already doctors. Government is by design a slow-moving institution. The 'shake-things-up' mantra is nothing more than a fallacy – one person can't come in (even to the presidency) and change things to their liking in a lasting, meaningful way without broad endorsement. And that's where being an actual politician works to your advantage.
Without minimizing everything Oprah has done, without taking away her status as a self-made woman, what is she really? She's a talk-show host that dabbles in acting and owns a magazine. A very good talk-show host – someone who has used her stature and wealth to advocate for change and support causes she sincerely believes in – but a talk-show host nevertheless.
Quick Note: Just as I don't believe that one speech should vault someone into the forefront of contention (with the possible exception of Obama's 2004 all-timer), I don't think it's a license to tear someone apart . She made the speech because she was receiving an award, and genuinely tried to make a moving and powerful statement. In that, she succeeded. And in that, she inspired those who do not agree with her to broach every aspect of her 50-year-long stint in the public eye to find fault. This isn't a referendum on Oprah as a person or an advocate, but simply on her qualification to hold a single job in the whole wide world.
I guarantee you, if you asked Oprah right now to talk about the most important issues, she'd give you some generic platitudes without any real substance. That's not a comment on her intelligence or her aptitude, but rather a testament to the fact that she is not a politician. She wouldn't be able to outline the three most important economic challenges facing us, identify the leaders of most countries, or even tell you who the most important Republican congressmen and women (okay fine, probably just men) are. A fleeting hope – especially one founded on a pleasant speech – is not a reason to anoint her years in advance. Maybe if Oprah takes that time to learn and serve, then we can all take her more seriously.
Oprah could be a good president. It's possible. But 'good' is not a bar we should settle for, and more importantly it's not what we need. We don't want a front-of-house president, who only gives speeches and kisses babies, and has a bunch of qualified people serving them. We want someone who's not only informed and eloquent to the point where they can act with the effectiveness of a president on TV, instead of just another TV president.