There's no way someone makes a great speech about hope and American unity on national television and immediately gets catapulted into being a serious presidential contender. Totally absurd.
A television star going straight to the White House? Ridiculous.
Like the early talk of Barack Obama and Donald Trump for president before her, the obsession over Oprah Winfrey as a legitimate potential White House contender was widely dismissed Monday as the latest cable catnip — except for all the hardened political operatives who spent the day amazing themselves by taking it seriously.
Forget all the things that people are still clinging to as defining campaigns, all the usual rules for how people win elections. She is indeed a celebrity, and the reaction can look like the same empty mania The Rock set off when he floated running for president as part of the “Baywatch” movie promotion tour. But she is also an African-American woman who grew up poor and abused, and became a self-made billionaire with a deeper understanding of how to speak to Americans — of all races and gender and geography — than anyone alive.
Her exhibit at Washington's new African American Museum is already bigger than Obama’s.
“There isn’t anybody who’s a greater antithesis to Donald Trump than Oprah Winfrey,” said David Axelrod, who helped turn Obama’s 2004 convention keynote into a real campaign.
“I don’t know whether she’s running or not, but I recognize the beats, and they were done exquisitely,” said Mike Murphy, who said he felt déjà vu watching Sunday night’s speech, back from the days when he helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become the governor of California.
The world needs a fairy tale right now — or at least Democrats do. And Oprah Winfrey is, after all, America’s fairy godmother. She can tell you to look under your seat and find a car. She can tell you what to read, and how to live your best life. She’s a woman who’s sat in millions of living rooms in America every afternoon telling people that she’s listening to them and sharing their problems, who still does Weight Watchers commercials because even with a billion dollars, she’s still talking to the same women she’s struggled alongside for years.
“She is very smart, she has a substantial following. I would take her very seriously as a candidate,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s most reliable defenders. “Times change and circumstances change — and Oprah is unique, she’s not just a celebrity, she is a very successful businesswoman. … She’s a very serious person. She’s not in the celebrity league.”
“If she was a conservative I’d be looking at her for 2024!” said Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa GOP state chair. “Let’s face it, she is a likable, respectable lady. That automatically puts her into contention by anybody’s definition.”
Sunday afternoon, Winfrey was on the stage at the Beverly Hilton, rehearsing for the Golden Globes. She’d written the speech largely herself, people familiar with it said. She wanted to get the delivery just right: and hit the literary touches, from the, “his tie was white, and of course his skin was black” description of Sidney Poitier, to “I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon!”
Political operatives who know her, and those who don’t agreed: a woman as smart and savvy about the American public and the media could not have given that speech without knowing how she’d stir the presidential speculation pot. Now she gets to see how the reaction plays and who comes calling, and decide if it’s something she really wants.
And if it’s not, she can just write it off as a speech at an awards show that people were crazy to make so much of. Friends were telling others they were delighted by the response. Insiders were trying to figure out who helped her with the speech.
After the speech, her longtime partner Stedman Graham, who’s known for never saying much, told the Los Times Angeles Times that a presidential bid would be "up to the people. She would absolutely do it.” And by Monday afternoon, a Republican strategist close to the White House was calling her formidable, while insisting that she’d have trouble getting through a Democratic primary.
There isn’t a top Democrat who thinks that’s true.
“People are treating Oprah as if she fits into some box. She doesn’t. It’s not a celebrity box,” said Democratic strategist Brian Fallon. “Oprah is a unique, standalone entity that uniquely could winnow the field.”
Fallon spent two years as the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, working to elect her on the argument that no one else was more qualified and prepared to be president.
Within minutes of Winfrey grabbing Reese Witherspoon’s arm and walking off stage, Obama alumni were on Twitter offering up the former president's "O" logo for her to borrow. Obama himself hasn’t talked about a campaign with her, and hasn’t seen her in person since they were on a yacht together in the South Pacific in April, along with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks, said a source familiar with their interactions.
People parsing through the mechanics of what a Winfrey campaign might look like said her time might prove infinitely more valuable than however much money she’d self-fund with.
“There are 99 county chairs in Iowa,” said Obama’s 2012 Iowa state director, Brad Anderson. “And I promise you every one of them would call her back. And I can’t say that about every potential presidential candidate.”
(“Call me @oprah. I've got some Iowa county chairs who would love to hear from you,” Anderson tweeted Monday morning. He said he hadn’t yet heard back.)
Donna Brazile, the former interim Democratic National Committee chair, said that by Monday morning she’d already gotten more emails, texts and phone calls than she had about any other potential 2020 candidate over the last few months.
The skeptics sigh.
“Are you kidding?” said Michigan state Democratic chair Brandon Dillon, when asked what he thought of all the Oprah talk.
“It was a great speech and she obviously has a huge following,” Dillon added. But “If that’s the standard for electing a president, it’s a low bar.”
If she wants to run, Dillon said, don’t show up at the Golden Globes. Show up in Macomb County, or Detroit. Throw some of that money into helping win the governor’s race. Do the things that every serious candidate — other than, of course, Trump — does to make an impact: get to know people, help the party.
“If somebody said Oprah can replace Donald Trump tomorrow, I’d say, ‘I’ll take it, put her in,’” Dillon said. “But I’m not going to take it seriously at this point.”
For many Democrats and others, Obama’s 2004 speech broke through because it tapped into the frustration of the country without going directly after the president. Winfrey’s speech seems to have struck a similar chord.
It was, Fallon said, “as good a crystallization of all the issues that are at stake in the Trump era as anyone in politics or out has given.”
“It’s hard to picture her going door to door in 99 counties in Iowa,” said Ben LaBolt, who worked for Obama in the White House, and as the press secretary for his re-election campaign. But in 2020, that might not matter.
“The path would also be to demonstrate that the typical politician may not be the right person to take on Donald Trump and you’re going to need somebody that’s able to motivate a very diverse coalition,” he said.
American politics is careened so far through the looking glass that there’s a clip of Trump in 1999 saying he’d want Winfrey as his running mate. He was speaking, naturally, on Larry King, now a star of Russia Today television.
But on Air Force One Monday, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley left it at this: "We welcome the challenge, whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else.”
In Iowa, Kaufmann was already gaming it out for the Republicans. He questioned whether Winfrey would be willing to risk becoming hated by 40 to 45 percent of the electorate, and how she’d fare against the Bernie Sanders slice of the base that might push back on a nominee from the 1 percent of the 1 percent.
Asked whether Sanders supporters would welcome Winfrey to the race, his 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what her politics are. We’re all about politics, not personality.”
Obama gave a great speech in 2004. He became a celebrity. But he still had to be talked into going through all the work of a presidential campaign, and then had to drive around parts of Iowa and New Hampshire that most people who aren’t running for president never go near.
For Winfrey, it would mean giving up a life in which she does literally whatever she wants, and says whatever she wants, and takes a supporting role in the new “Wrinkle in Time” movie because it’s fun and she likes the script. Contrast that to all the time and picking over of her personal life, the inevitable leaking about embarrassing details, opposition research that would dig into every comment in those thousands of hours on daytime television and all the people she stood by.
“There’s a big gulf between the warm feelings that speech generated and the cold hard reality of running,” Axelrod said. “That speech itself is a reminder that one can be a really impactful person without running for president of the United States.”
“She’s phenomenal. She’s broken barriers, she’s opened doors,” Brazile said. “The question is whether she’s looking for a new address.”