Could Oprah sell ObamaCare to America?
That’s the question on the lips of healthcare activists who are hoping the talk show queen will put her considerable influence behind the promotional campaign for President Obama’s signature law.
The billionaire media mogul is a supporter and family friend of the Obamas but has given no indication she’s interested in participating in the enrollment push that is set to begin this fall.
Marketing experts say her involvement would be a game changer.
"She has one of the most powerful brands in America," said Allen Adamson, managing director at brand consulting firm Landor Associates.
"If the White House isn't calling her, they should be."
The administration has pursued celebrity endorsements for ObamaCare as a way to drum up participation in the insurance exchanges that are set to launch on Oct. 1.
In July, the White House hosted singer Jennifer Hudson, actress Amy Poehler and other celebs to talk ObamaCare. Winfrey did not have a direct representative at the White House meeting, but one of her talent agencies did.
Since then, administration officials have been tight-lipped about the publicity campaign for ObamaCare and who might be onboard.
The White House declined to comment specifically on Winfrey’s possible participation in the ObamaCare rollout, though an official praised “leaders from … the arts community [who] have expressed an interest in getting involved.”
“We welcome the wide variety of organizations and stakeholders from artists to librarians, to pharmacies, to women’s magazines who are working to ensuring that Americans know about the affordable health insurance options that will be available in the new marketplaces starting Oct. 1,” the official said in a statement.
Officials with Winfrey's cable network, OWN, were not available for comment.
There are signs that Oprah might be willing to step back into politics after a noticeable absence.
She recently hosted a fundraiser for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who is running for Senate in New Jersey, and is starring in a forthcoming political film about a longtime African-American butler at the White House.
Her criticism of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last year, also made headlines this summer.
Oprah is already set to visit the White House later this year, as Obama announced just last week that she is among this year’s recipients of the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians.
But promoting one of the most controversial laws in decades would be a big risk for Winfrey to take.
Her favorability with the public dropped sharply in 2008 after she endorsed and campaigned with Obama. The move alienated both right-leaning viewers and those who supported Hillary Clinton.
Some analysts linked the endorsement to a subsequent drop in ratings for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” She shifted tactics in 2012, choosing to support Obama but not actively promote him.
Oprah would risk tarnishing her brand by associating herself with the polarizing healthcare law. According to a recent CBS survey, 39 percent now support full repeal of ObamaCare, the highest level ever found in the organization's polling.
But if there were a single person who might be able to turn those numbers around, it would be Winfrey, whose influence on public behavior has been extensively documented.
"The numbers surrounding her impact are really wild," said Ethan Rome, executive director of the consumer group Health Care for America Now.
Rome said Oprah is the exception to the rule that political endorsements don’t affect behavior.
"Oprah transcends that in a serious way. She is not somebody who simply influences how people think. She influences what people do, and when it comes to enrollment, that's what matters," Rome said.
Researchers have coined the term "the Oprah effect" to describe her vast power to persuade.
Members of Oprah's Book Club have reportedly purchased more than 55 million books since the group began; her talk show netted 12 million viewers at its peak; her signature O Magazine has a circulation of several million, and she reportedly receives 25,000 emails per week.
Researchers at the University of Maryland claim Winfrey's 2008 endorsement of Obama delivered more than 1 million votes in the Democratic primary. The president himself joked about Oprah’s clout at a private fundraiser last year.
“When Oprah decides she likes you, then other people like you, too,” Obama said.
Oprah’s seal of approval could be particularly effective for ObamaCare, which is seeking to enroll 7 million people this year, including large numbers of women and African-Americans.
The million-dollar ad wars over ObamaCare have targeted women in particular.
One anti-ObamaCare commercial from the conservative Americans for Prosperity shows a young mother talking about her son, who has seizures. She expresses concerns that the healthcare law will limit her choice of doctors and raise her premiums.
Adamson suggested that Winfrey could counter those ads if she began to discuss the law's merits in public.
"The challenge for ObamaCare is that it's been around for a long time, and the issues have gotten muddy," he said.
"But Oprah has a deep connection with her followers. Women view her as objective and not in somebody's pocket. So her backing could be a powerful tool," Adamson said.
Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy at Families USA, said ObamaCare supporters have a "tremendous mountain to climb" this fall.
"Someone like Oprah has a lot of credibility and can reach a large constituency of supporters," Stoll said. "We welcome the participation of celebrities in this effort."