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A Dream Deferred: What President Oprah Might Look Like

January 30, 2018
by Krissy Eliot
Political cartoon poster of Oprah Winfrey "A New Hope-Rah?" graphic by Krissy Eliot

Despite the post-Golden Globes buzz about Oprah Winfrey being the next Commander in Chief, polls say that most voters don’t want her to run. And when she was explicitly asked if she had her eye on the presidency, the TV star said definitively, “It’s not something that interests me.”

But what if, hypothetically, Oprah changed her mind? What would it be like if she were elected? Well, for starters…

“[The alt-right] would do everything they could to tear her down and get rid of her,” said UC Berkeley linguistics professor Robin Lakoff, who was kind enough to indulge some wild speculation about an Oprah presidency. “They’d do the same thing they’d have done to Hillary Clinton [if she were president]. They’d be trying to impeach her, or worse, trying to assassinate her.”

Much like what happened to Clinton during her 2016 campaign, Lakoff says, those who were once fans of Oprah may suddenly feel threatened by a woman in power and try to tear her down.

“Hillary Clinton was very popular and everyone thought she was terrific, and as the possibility of her actually getting elected got close, people started getting very frantic. Suddenly she was a terrible woman, intolerable, did this crime and that crime, she was a flawed candidate,” Lakoff says. “Oprah to my knowledge has led a scandal-free life, but those ‘alternative facts’ people will make up anything and drag her through the mud.”

Image of Oprah Winfrey giving a speech
What Oprah Winfrey might look like making a political speech; Image by Krissy Eliot

And it seems some are already giddy at the thought of slinging said mud her way. Within two weeks of Oprah’s name being floated as a possible presidential candidate, people started polling for the best Trump nicknames for her—like Overrated Oprah, Oprah’s Kook Club, Oprah Lose-frey, and the playground rhyming insults, Nope-rah and Dope-rah.

In a more refined, intellectual attempt at pooh-pooh-ing her candidacy, Kurt Andersen, host of the WNYC culture show Studio 360, said that an Oprah presidency would result in a divergence from the rational. He claimed that she’s helped to push ideas that are pseudoscientific and mystical (such as extraterrestrials, paranormal experiences, and satanic cults), therefore she’s a threat to “objective reality.”

Mother Jones jumped on a similar bandwagon, posting the story “How Oprah Helped Spread Anti-Vaccine Pseudoscience” with the tagline, “That’s one thing she has in common with Donald Trump.” Only Oprah herself never officially came out in support of the anti-vaccine movement on her show—she merely hosted guests who did.

In a 2009 statement to NewsweekWinfrey said that by having guests on her show, she wasn’t endorsing their views, but was providing information that her audience could choose to use or discard.

“I’ve been saying for years that people are responsible for their actions and their own well-being,” Oprah said in the statement. “I believe my viewers understand the medical information presented on the show is just that—information—not an endorsement or prescription. Rather, my intention is for our viewers to take the information and engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners about what may be right for them.”

To Lakoff, the early attacks on Oprah aren’t surprising.

“People want to see something the matter with her because she’s a woman. And you can’t say, ‘I don’t take her seriously because she’s a woman,’ so you say, ‘I don’t take her seriously because she believes in extraterrestrials,’” Lakoff says. “She had people on her show and she treated them courteously … and showed interest. That doesn’t mean she believes [their ideas] too.”

For Oprah to truly separate herself from Trump and get more people to support her as a president, says Lawrence Rosenthal of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, Oprah would need to do what the Democratic Party has always struggled to do: Create a concise message that would band liberals together.

Although Oprah’s openness to hearing controversial ideas could be painted as a negative, says Lakoff, broad-mindedness and impartiality are great characteristics of a diplomat, someone who could appeal to both sides of the political spectrum.

“Some conservatives might eventually come around, because Oprah is conservative in some ways. She believes in God … and is able to be conciliatory,” Lakoff says. “I think she’s the kind of person who would give in on some things and not make enemies if she could help it.”

More likely, says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, a stronger pull for conservatives to get on board with Oprah would come from a desperation to get off the runaway Trump train.

“[The Democratic Party] is going to depend on widespread disgust with Donald Trump in the next election,” says Rosenthal. To truly separate herself from Trump and get more people to support her, he says, Oprah would need to do what the Democratic Party has always struggled to do: Create a concise message that would band liberals together.

“The thing Oprah would have to do is select an issue that she would represent—as Trump did around immigration, which has deep resonance with a disaffected part of America,” Rosenthal says. “She needs to find something of that nature that she could run on, to throw her hat in the ring and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”

What issue should she choose? What about women’s empowerment and channeling the #MeToo movement? After all, it was her girl-power-centric Golden Globes speech that sparked presidential murmurs in the first place. And American women are arguably disaffected—what with one in six reporting being victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime and fewer than 40 percent of them qualifying for paid family leave if they’re pregnant. Oh, and they get paid an average 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The I’m With Her shtick didn’t work for Clinton, but could it potentially work for Oprah?

As the Magic 8-ball would say: Outlook not so good.

Lakoff says that misogyny is so prevalent in this country that it was a driving force in getting Trump elected—so Oprah calling attention to her sex would not engender support. Also, it’s not like all women are bonded together simply because they’re female. Women make up 51 percent of the population, and, Rosenthal points out, a considerable chunk of white women voted for Trump. Even two years from now, assuming the #MeToo movement is still going strong, both Lakoff and Rosenthal agree that a woman-power platform would probably fall flat.

But in the spirit of wild speculation, let’s say it somehow works and Oprah gets elected. She’d then have the opportunity to do something about leveling the playing field in government regarding gender—where women currently make up only 19 percent of the House and 21 percent of the Senate.

“I would hope she’d appoint a lot of women–and I bet she would,” Lakoff says. “I would hope that she would find people in government who have served in relevant kinds of positions, who have seen how the presidency and the world works, who have been around awhile. People who have had very different kinds of experience from her—people of compassion, people of wisdom.”

In terms of issues not related to gender inequality, Oprah could have a profound impact during her term.

“I would hope that the first thing she would do is go to Paris, or pick up a phone and rejoin the Climate Accord. I think she’d stop the drilling in all the places we’re about to start drilling. I think she’d have respect for the environment. She loves animals,” says Lakoff, pausing before adding: “Did you know Trump is the only president since forever that hasn’t had a pet?”

Oprah’s presidency might also be a kind of throwback to Kennedy, says Lakoff, when Jackie Kennedy turned the White House into a locus of high culture by inviting musicians, poets, singers and artists to visit and perform there. “I think Oprah might do that,” Lakoff says. “She has the clout to pull people in.”

Photo of Oprah Justin Beber
Oprah poses with singer Justin Beber. Image Credit: Flickr

In general, Rosenthal guesses that a Winfrey White House would fall back on liberal democratic policies and ideologies, since she came out publicly in support of Obama during his campaign. However, says Rosenthal, if she were to ever take a strong stance on any controversial ideas, like publicly supporting the existence of aliens—that would be a no-no for Democrats.

“The conversation would get politics mixed up with debating fantasy-level stuff, to which there would be no answer,” Rosenthal says. “As Karl Rove said, the Democrats represent the reality-based community—it’s a challenge to that.”

But in reality, despite how fun it is to fantasize, a President Winfrey future seems to be a pipe dream.

“I think she would make a good president…. But for Oprah to actually get elected, misogyny would have to vanish. People would have to think of a woman president as a good thing,” Lakoff says—and many Americans are still far too sexist to elect a female.

“Having a woman in a key symbolic position of power would start to make us see the relationship between women and power in a different way…. It’s much too dangerous to have someone like her around,” Lakoff says. “The thing that men have always feared—when it comes to the clutch—is if they didn’t somehow squash women, then women would show that they were better than them. And who can stand that?”

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