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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 John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report 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 BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenTrump: 'You know what I am? I'm a nationalist' Biden jokes about Obama memes: 'Barack did the first friendship bracelet, not me' 'Broad City' stars urge Clinton not to run again 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 SpeierFemale House Dems urge Senate to delay Kavanaugh testimony for FBI investigation Election Countdown: Kavanaugh allegations put GOP in tough spot | Republicans start to pull plug on candidates | Dems get early start in Iowa | O'Rourke defends Cruz after protesters interrupt dinner | Why Biden is the Democrat GOP most fears Dems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted, “Run, Oprah, run! An army of women would fight for you.”

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDems lower expectations for 'blue wave' Booker bill would create federally funded savings account for every child Affordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign 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 Ann WarrenWarren wants probe into whether former U.S. soldiers worked as assassins for UAE 'Broad City' stars urge Clinton not to run again Big Dem donors stick to sidelines as 2020 approaches MORE (D-Mass.). Among the longer-odds bets than Winfrey were Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHarris presses young people to vote early in Iowa trip Dems lower expectations for 'blue wave' Election Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris presses young people to vote early in Iowa trip We need economic progress for more Americans Booker bill would create federally funded savings account for every child MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOn The Money: Trump to seek new round of tax cuts after midterms | Mnuchin meets with Saudi crown prince | Trump threatens to cut foreign aid over caravan Booker bill would create federally funded savings account for every child Big Dem donors stick to sidelines as 2020 approaches 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 ZuckerbergSenate Dem asks tech companies to look into Saudi propaganda efforts Hillicon Valley: Russia-linked hackers hit Eastern European companies | Twitter shares data on influence campaigns | Dems blast Trump over China interference claims | Saudi crisis tests Silicon Valley | Apple to let customers download their data Public funds support proposal to remove Zuckerberg as Facebook chairman 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.