After media magnate Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent speech at the Golden Globes, which you should totally read, a lot of people on Twitter and other social media are calling for her to run for president in 2020. This wave of support has only been magnified by the comment from her longtime partner, Stedman Graham. Asked whether she would run, Graham said, “It’s up to the people. She would absolutely do it.”
My unpopular opinion? Not just no, but hell, no.
It’s not like I don’t get the appeal. She has phenomenal name recognition. She could finance her own campaign, if she chose (and unlike Donald Trump, she really is a self-made billionaire). She knows a lot of influential people. She exudes empathy even more than Barack Obama did — also unlike Trump, she got to her billions by way of an impoverished childhood — and if there’s one thing the current occupant of the Oval Office lacks, it’s the slightest trace of empathy. She also seems, at least, far more trustworthy than the liar-in-chief.
All of these things make her an attractive candidate — arguably the most attractive candidate the Democratic Party could put up.
But they won’t necessarily make her a great candidate, which is different from an attractive one. And they won’t necessarily make her a good president. Some people have argued that she’s more qualified than a number of men who have held the job, and that’s probably true. But that bar is way too low, particularly now. We can’t screw around with our choice of the next president. Way too much is at stake. The next president isn’t just going to be the president, a daunting enough job under any circumstances. No, the next president is going to have to clean up all the shit that Donald Trump and his cronies have inflicted upon this country. And there is every reason to doubt that Oprah could do that. Let me elaborate.
I said above that Oprah knows a lot of influential people. That’s great, but what we are going to need isn’t necessarily influential people, but smart people. We face huge challenges: Global warming. The existential threat of nuclear war with North Korea. An economy that stubbornly refuses to pay a living wage to too many people. Russian interference with our elections from abroad and GOP suppression of voting at home. Opioid addiction and deaths. Immigration. And, yes, sexual misconduct against women. And on and on and on. Oprah may know lots of influential people, but our lives may depend on whether she knows whom to name the next Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Presidents deal with the toughest of questions. For all the bad raps government work gets, the facts are that career government workers are generally very good at what they do and good at solving problems. That means in many cases that when a problem lands on the president’s desk, some of the nation’s most talented people already have taken swings at it and we still don’t have a resolution everyone’s happy with.
Supporters say she would work collaboratively. Two former co-workers of mine worked for her, and let’s just say I fear the truth is a little different: The gag orders she imposed on employees do not bode well for open government, which we desperately need.
We also need to get away from the idea that a savvy businessperson will make a good president. Government is not a business, it has different aims and imperatives from business, it cannot be run like a business, and history shows that most efforts to do so have come to grief. Trump is only the worst example; almost as bad was Herbert Hoover, universally acknowledged as a great businessman but inarguably one of our worst presidents.
Finally, there are far more qualified candidates available. Just looking at Democratic women in the U.S. Senate, I can point to Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillebrand, and Elizabeth Warren. That’s before we even start looking at male senators or members of either sex in the U.S. House or at governors.
In addition to governing savvy, the next president is going to have to have political savvy as well. He or she won’t be able to wave a wand and clean stuff up; he/she will have to be able to work with Congress, which will require relationships with some of its key leaders. Oprah’s good at relationships, but this is no time to be establishing them on the fly.
If she knew anything about politics, she would know that now is not the time to be talking about the 2020 presidential race. Instead, now is the time to be talking about the need to elect Democrats to the House and Senate and governorships and state legislatures and local offices this year. Sure, if she’s gonna run in 2020, it absolutely would not hurt to start planning now, but in public statements, it’s critical that Democrats focus on this year’s elections and not look ahead.
And there’s one other thing about Oprah’s political savvy that bugs me perhaps more than it should, but it bugs me a lot so I’m gonna talk about it anyway: After that powerful speech about the plight of women and the need for change, she allowed the public conversation to become about her and not about the position she was championing. She made no effort that I can see to redirect the public conversation back to that issue, and she apparently didn’t coach Stedman Graham to do the same. No one gets where she has gotten without some ego, but I can’t help wondering whether she doesn’t harbor at least some of the narcissism that Trump does. And, boy howdy, narcissism is literally the last thing we need in our next president.
I think Oprah could and would inspire a lot of people if she ran for president, particularly women and girls, and I do not underestimate the effect that that inspiration could have on voter registration and turnout. But she could do that while raising money, raising awareness of issues, and campaigning for a more qualified candidate as well as for down-ballot Democrats.
So God bless Oprah, but, no. We don’t just have issues or problems, we have crises, and the stakes are far too high to roll the dice.