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The Memo: Oprah buzz sparks debate about celebrity presidents

The idea of a possible presidential run by Oprah Winfrey is raising fresh questions about the degree to which celebrity can — or should — translate into political success.

Winfrey’s powerful speech at the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday evening triggered speculation that the 63-year-old media mogul could be gearing up for a run against President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE in 2020.

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On one level, a Trump vs. Winfrey race seems too surreal a scenario to take seriously.

But the idea of Trump becoming president in the first place was met with similar disbelief when he entered the race in June 2015, and Winfrey has hinted before at a run.

Plus, following her speech, which covered everything from sexual harassment to the legacy of racism, her longtime partner Stedman Graham said she would be open to a White House bid if there were popular demand for it.

Among Democratic strategists, there is excitement about the idea of an Oprah bid. Experts see Winfrey as a strong potential candidate, even as they caution that victory would be by no means guaranteed.

“She shot a warning flare into the sky to everyone out there who doesn’t recognize the game has changed,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “Oprah Winfrey would be formidable if she chose to make the race. That does not mean that, say, Joe BidenJoe BidenObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Biden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Mondale in last message to staff: 'Joe in the White House certainly helps' MORE, if he were to run, would not defeat her. But she would be a major force.”

Plenty of others agree.

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats hearing House removes deadline for ratifying ERA MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted, “Run, Oprah, run! An army of women would fight for you.”

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandIntelligence leaders warn of threats from China, domestic terrorism Jon Stewart accuses VA of being 'an obstacle' to burn pits medical care Family policy that could appeal to the right and the left MORE (D-N.Y.), who is widely rumored to have her own presidential ambitions, called Winfrey “a real leader.” And voices as disparate as actor Meryl Streep and conservative writer Bill Kristol welcomed the idea of Winfrey getting into the race.

CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that two unnamed friends of Winfrey had told him she was “actively thinking” about running.

As of Monday afternoon, bookmaker Paddy Power had Winfrey at odds of 10-1 to win the 2020 presidential election — second only to Trump himself, and the same odds offered for Vice President Pence, Biden and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWorld passes 3 million coronavirus deaths Poll: 56 percent say wealth tax is part of solution to inequality Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents MORE (D-Mass.). Among the longer-odds bets than Winfrey were Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change through finance | Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez introduce 'Green New Deal for Public Housing' | Don't attack Zoom for its Bernie Sanders federal tax bill Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez introduce 'Green New Deal for Public Housing' MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Overnight Energy: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change through finance | Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez introduce 'Green New Deal for Public Housing' | Harris: Americans able to 'breathe easier and sleep better' under Biden MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory BookerBass 'hopeful' on passing police reform: 'Republicans that I am working with are operating in good faith' Progressive lawmakers press DHS chief on immigration detention Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico MORE (D-N.J.).

It is easy to dismiss the idea of a Winfrey presidential run as the product of media hype. But some independent experts argue that celebrities have significant advantages over conventional politicians, especially at a time when voters are disenchanted with the status quo.

Trump surfed this dynamic into the White House, all the while creating the sense that he — a billionaire living in a gold tower in Manhattan — had a better sense of the general public’s lives and sensibilities than any of the establishment politicians who were running against him.

Mark Wheeler, the author of “Celebrity Politics” and a professor at London Metropolitan University, said that there has been “a collapse of trust” in established institutions.

Celebrities, with whom the public often “developed a sense of affinity,” were well positioned to fill the void, he added.

Wheeler noted that some overlap between the worlds of celebrity and politics, especially in the U.S., was by no means new.

He noted that this was the case even before the electoral successes of former entertainment stars like President Reagan, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. In earlier eras, many Hollywood stars were firm backers of President Franklin Roosevelt, while the Frank Sinatra-led “Rat Pack” were big boosters of President Kennedy.

John Street, the author of “Celebrity Politicians” and a political science professor at the University of East Anglia, said that it was Trump’s example, in particular, that has laid the foundation for a run by Winfrey — or by some other figure from outside the political world, such as Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Apple approves Parler's return to App Store | White House scales back response to SolarWinds, Microsoft incidents | Pressure mounts on DHS over relationship with Clearview AI Facebook unveils new audio features Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference MORE.

“In any era when people are disillusioned with traditional politics, it certainly looks as if we can conceive of elections where the victor has no ostensible political experience as a plausible model of the future,” Street said. “You can’t say Oprah can’t do it, because Trump did it.”

The problem, as Street and others noted, is that getting elected and governing are two vastly different things.

Among Democratic voters in particular, the message from Trump’s presidency may not be that the party needs its own celebrity to run against him. It may instead be that Trump’s example is a salutary one and that the nation now requires someone steeped in governmental experience and policy knowledge.

Even as the Oprah boomlet took shape over the past 48 hours, there were already skeptical voices raised among the progressive community.

“Maybe we should just elect the president after a special week-long edition of ‘Survivor,’” Jonathan Tasini, a prominent left-wing activist in New York wrote in a Monday morning email. “Celebrity culture is a cancer — and it’s dismaying to see people who should know better swooning over such idiocy.”

The White House has insisted it is unfazed by the idea of a Winfrey presidential campaign. Spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday, “We welcome the challenge, whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else.”

But Trippi, the Democratic strategist, insisted the president should not underestimate Oprah.

“Do people think Trump is failing because he never operated in government before and doesn’t know what he’s doing? Or is he failing because he is a divisive voice keeping us in a world of chaos?” Trippi asked. “If it’s the latter, Oprah Winfrey could present herself as the exact antidote to that.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.