A celebrity would be alright

There’s something to be said for charisma and good storytelling

Rob Lanphier
Feb 15, 2018 · 5 min read
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After her excellent Golden Globes speech, there was wild speculation about Oprah Winfrey running for President in 2020. That has mostly died down, as she has repeatedly disavowed any interest in it. Earlier this year, Winfrey’s good friend Gayle King (also co-host on “CBS This Morning”) suggested Oprah was “intrigued” by the possibility of a run. King later suggested to her that if she ran, it “wouldn’t be good for you— it would be good for everyone else

And it would be. During the #Oprah2020 debate, Nate Silver dubbed himself an “anti-anti-Oprah”, though he was careful to suggest that “there are reasons to be bearish on celebrity presidential runs”. He only liked Oprah “relative to other celebrities”.

The implication: her status as a celebrity without government experience disqualifies her for the job. My belief: being a “celebrity without government experience” doesn’t disqualify someone (and is one of the least problematic characteristics of our current president). Respect for the office is a better litmus. Winfrey clearly understands what an awesome responsibility the job is, and has convinced herself that she shouldn’t do it (or as she put it: “I don’t have the DNA for it”)

One thing that made George Washington such a great president is that he didn’t want to do it, either. Many would have been happy to crown Washington the first King of America. Our founding members of government appreciated that he lacked the thirst for power, and wanted him as our first president because of that. We were lucky that we had a reasonably good system by 18th century standards, complemented with Washington’s tradition of setting excellent norms to compensate for the design flaws.

Our electoral system has only undergone modest changes since that time (e.g. we still have an electoral college, and we still have a winner-take-all system) and we’ve endured over two centuries of brutal partisan rifts. The norms around campaigning have withered beneath millions of dollars invested in influencing candidates and elections, and decades of honing ruthless electoral strategy . Our prolonged primaries (for which we should expect candidacies to start in earnest in early 2019) will be less about what the best policies are than about what the winning policies are for each of our two major parties.

In the general elections of the past, the swing voters weren’t voting for someone who is qualified to handle the day-to-day job. People were voting for a spokesperson for America.

Hillary Clinton would have been fantastically qualified to be our current president. As Barack Obama put it at DNC 2016: “there has never been a man or a woman (not me, not Bill… nobody) more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president”. He wasn’t just being gracious; in a 2015 discussion with Thomas Frank, Paul Krugman spells out how Hillary Clinton had better policy choices on a number of issues. He lays out how ObamaCare was effectively HillaryCare, and how Obama spent his first three years learning that he wasn’t going to be able to lean on his personal power of persuasion to create bipartisan policy. Clinton knew better well before 2008.

In fact, Hillary Clinton would have been wonderful, except…she’s not a great spokesperson. Obama was amazing at this. John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt derived a lot of their power from their eloquence on television and radio. Ronald Reagan was devastating in his effectiveness as a politician because he was an incredibly talented spokesperson, even when his Alzheimer’s was clearly taking its toll. Once, when Reagan was asked if about how his experience as an actor helped him, he responded: “There have been times in this office,” Reagan responded, “when I wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” (CNN)

Oprah Winfrey would be an amazing spokesperson for the United States. In so many ways, she’s at least as qualified as the current president. She earned her way to becoming a billionaire. She’s clearly a capable executive. If she selected a highly-qualified running mate (e.g. Hillary Clinton), and the pair would be unstoppable.

In many respects, what Democrats need in 2020 is someone who can tell the story of how government helps people. Not merely on the campaign trail, but as a full-time job. Our current president has turned the presidency into an awful reality TV show, as we watch his cabinet learn the basics and become giddy at the prospect of shutting down the government. A Democratic president who is comfortable in front of the camera could turn the presidency into an inspiring and uplifting reality TV show where we learn just how over 2 million people employed by the federal government help people. Of course, “inspiring and uplifting” is not how we think of the government; years of scapegoating have taken their toll. Certainly, some government officials would hate to have the spotlight shined on their work. But imagine a weekly reality TV show where a trustworthy POTUS surveys one of the many federal agencies in the executive branch. It would force those branches to up their game, and give them an opportunity to explain why government spending on them is not a waste.

Obama was wonderful, but his cool confidence caused many of us to get lazy, and assume we don’t need to think about it because he does. In other words: he’s got this. As we’ve seen in the post-Obama state elections (e.g. Virginia), there’s a new energy at the state and local level. We have a newfound appreciation for the professionalism of people like Robert Mueller. Many of us have come to realize that we can’t rely on just having one great person on top, but many great people at all levels of government.

If Trump gets frog-marched out of the Oval Office before 2020, then the appeal of a celebrity candidate looks totally different. All serious candidates would need to have solid experience and unimpeachable ethics. Democrats have a deep bench of candidates up to that task.

But what if we still have the same president? Many serious people thought there was no way our current president could get elected. Other than age, it’s hard to imagine how his reelection would be harder for him than his initial election (David Frum paints a spooky picture of his second inauguration in 2021 that seems right on track). As Van Jones suggested in May 2017, we need someone with Oprah’s starpower to defeat this. Who do we have?

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