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Oprah for President 2020?

In the wake of Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes for her Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award on January 7, 2018, the political twitter-verse went a little bonkers predicting a possible presidential run.

After Trump’s surprising victory, I don’t think any of us can say that she’s unqualified for the role or even unelectable. But in many ways she has some of the same flaws that make the Trump presidency so problematic.

Oprah may be famous, but Trump has demonstrated that celebrity is a poor substitute for actual political skills. All recent presidents came to the job with larger political tool kits. Obama had been a US Senator. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were governors. The elder Bush had been Vice President. As we have seen in the chaotic first year of the Trump presidency, the Oval Office is perhaps not the ideal place for on-the-job training.  

Wealth is also not a substitute for competence. If Americans believe the 2020 race is merely a contest between two vain billionaires, turn out could be just as disappointing as it was in 2016. 

However, the contrasts between Oprah’s wealth and Trump’s could not be more stark. According to the latest estimates by Forbes, Oprah is worth $2.8 billion and Trump is worth $3.1 billion. The mere $300 million difference between the two is astonishing when one considers Oprah grew up “dirt poor” in rural Mississippi and was raised alternately by her single mother and grandmother. She did not have indoor plumbing. Compare that with Trump. His father was “one of the richest people in America in the 1970s” and Donald started out with a $1 million loan from his father, worth about $7 million today.

Normally I’d worry about the chances for a woman without a family running for office. But after the Trump family travails, being childless looks a lot more attractive. Oprah’s advantage in not having offspring is that she doesn’t have any children to run her campaign into the ground or into the hands of a foreign power. There’s no embarrassing “Oprah Jr.” out there. Moreover, Americans won’t have to suffer through strained nepotism laws if she is elected, compared with having daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared in the White House now. 

Business entanglements don’t work well with the presidency. Oprah may have a similar problem as Trump when it comes to divestment. Trump’s tenure has been rife with conflicts of interest as he visits a Trump-branded property on average every three days at taxpayer expense.  Ethics experts advised him to divest and to place his wealth in a blind trust. He refused to do so.   

Her 25 percent ownership of OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) and of Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards) Productions, might be hard for her to let go, just like Trump. (However, it’s likely Oprah would have no trouble selling her minority stake in OWN to the other owner of the network, Discovery Communications.)  Trump has put his businesses in a see-through revocable trust.  But if Oprah wants to distinguish herself from Trump’s  and his seemingly innumerable conflicts of interest, she should step all the way away from her ownership all on-going businesses. At the very least she should not stop by her businesses every few days to golf or for “executive time.”

The downside to running against Trump is all of the nastiness he heaped on Hillary Clinton in 2016 will likely be repackaged and hurled Oprah’s way. And given his loose relationship with the truth, mendacity will probably come with the territory.  If she really cares more about her commercial brand than politics, getting lied about for two years by Mr. Trump may not be worth it.

Oprah clearly has the name recognition and the funds to be a successful candidate. The question is does she have the will to take on all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that would accompany a presidential run? 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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