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Oprah for President 2020?

Oprah may not be as different from Donald Trump as commonly believed.

January 11, 2018

In the wake of Oprah Winfrey’s accept­ance speech at the Golden Globes for her Cecil B. DeMille Life­time Achieve­ment Award on Janu­ary 7, 2018, the polit­ical twit­ter-verse went a little bonkers predict­ing a possible pres­id­en­tial run.

After Trump’s surpris­ing victory, I don’t think any of us can say that she’s unqual­i­fied for the role or even unelect­able. But in many ways she has some of the same flaws that make the Trump pres­id­ency so prob­lem­atic.

Oprah may be famous, but Trump has demon­strated that celebrity is a poor substi­tute for actual polit­ical skills. All recent pres­id­ents came to the job with larger polit­ical tool kits. Obama had been a U.S. Senator. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton were governors. The elder Bush had been Vice Pres­id­ent. As we have seen in the chaotic first year of the Trump pres­id­ency, the Oval Office is perhaps not the ideal place for on-the-job train­ing.  

Wealth is also not a substi­tute for compet­ence. If Amer­ic­ans believe the 2020 race is merely a contest between two vain billion­aires, turn out could be just as disap­point­ing as it was in 2016. 

However, the contrasts between Oprah’s wealth and Trump’s could not be more stark. Accord­ing to the latest estim­ates by Forbes, Oprah is worth $2.8 billion and Trump is worth $3.1 billion. The mere $300 million differ­ence between the two is aston­ish­ing when one considers Oprah grew up “dirt poor” in rural Missis­sippi and was raised altern­ately by her single mother and grand­mother. She did not have indoor plumb­ing. Compare that with Trump. His father was “one of the richest people in Amer­ica in the 1970s” and Donald star­ted out with a $1 million loan from his father, worth about $7 million today.

Normally I’d worry about the chances for a woman without a family running for office. But after the Trump family trav­ails, being child­less looks a lot more attract­ive. Oprah’s advant­age in not having offspring is that she does­n’t have any chil­dren to run her campaign into the ground or into the hands of a foreign power. There’s no embar­rass­ing “Oprah Jr.” out there. Moreover, Amer­ic­ans won’t have to suffer through strained nepot­ism laws if she is elec­ted, compared with having daugh­ter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared in the White House now. 

Busi­ness entan­gle­ments don’t work well with the pres­id­ency. Oprah may have a similar prob­lem as Trump when it comes to divest­ment. Trump’s tenure has been rife with conflicts of interest as he visits a Trump-branded prop­erty on aver­age every three days at taxpayer expense.  Ethics experts advised him to divest and to place his wealth in a blind trust. He refused to do so.   

Her 25 percent owner­ship of OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) and of Harpo (Oprah spelled back­wards) Produc­tions, might be hard for her to let go, just like Trump. (However, it’s likely Oprah would have no trouble selling her minor­ity stake in OWN to the other owner of the network, Discov­ery Commu­nic­a­tions.)  Trump has put his busi­nesses in a see-through revoc­able trust.  But if Oprah wants to distin­guish herself from Trump’s  and his seem­ingly innu­mer­able conflicts of interest, she should step all the way away from her owner­ship all on-going busi­nesses. At the very least she should not stop by her busi­nesses every few days to golf or for “exec­ut­ive time.”

The down­side to running against Trump is all of the nasti­ness he heaped on Hillary Clin­ton in 2016 will likely be repack­aged and hurled Oprah’s way. And given his loose rela­tion­ship with the truth, mendacity will prob­ably come with the territ­ory.  If she really cares more about her commer­cial brand than polit­ics, getting lied about for two years by Mr. Trump may not be worth it.

Oprah clearly has the name recog­ni­tion and the funds to be a success­ful candid­ate. The ques­tion is does she have the will to take on all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that would accom­pany a pres­id­en­tial run? 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)