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Oprah Winfrey and the Oval Office: Is political experience necessary anymore?

BU political scientist Virginia Sapiro reasons that all presidents face a steep learning curve, governmental knowledge or not

President Barack Obama awards the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey.

By Virginia Sapiro

In a year when part of the population appears desperate for a presidential candidate other than the incumbent, we have seen speculation about a succession of different people — from Mike Pence or Elizabeth Warren to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for instance. The riveting speech by the very popular Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony created an explosion of speculation about her and advocacy on her behalf, and media reports claim she isn’t ruling out the possibility of a 2020 run for office. Some argue we are in a new era when we can leave political experience and expertise behind in searching for the next President of this large, complicated, powerful country. Is this true?

Oprah Winfrey has long been extremely popular and influential as a television personality, leader of a communications empire, philanthropist, and actress. She has touched the hearts of many people who feel the United States has been plummeted into a free-fall from caring about justice for all, inclusion, respect for the press and civil rights and liberties — nothing short of a turn away from democracy. She is a great performer, on display again during her speech. We know too that she is a voracious reader and a great listener.

Before he took office, Donald Trump was a popular television personality with a large following, a salesman for his own brand who has convinced a large part of the public that he is an extraordinarily successful businessman. He surprised even himself by winning first the Republican nomination and then the presidency despite a lack of prior political experience. Even Ronald Reagan, best known as an actor, had been head of a large union and then governor of one of the country’s largest and most complex states before his successful run for the presidency. But research shows that Trump did not just pull in Republican votes — he touched the hearts of many people, especially among white people and those outside the major cities who felt they had been abandoned by the country’s leadership.

Once in office and through the fervor of election season, Donald Trump’s lack of political experience and expertise became evident. He proved ignorant of how the federal government and the White House works before he stepped into office. For instance, he didn’t know that there would not be a single holdover person working there when he took office, and that he would have to hire them all. Whatever one thinks of his stands on issues, his lack of governmental knowledge and expertise has revealed itself in the shambles that is his personnel staffing and his demonstrated lack of knowledge about the complicated policies he now has to deal with. All of this has made clear that he prefers an autocratic, personalistic approach to leadership — different than past presidents.

So why not turn to another candidate for president who has no experience in government and likely also would have to learn from scratch?

We must ask ourselves what would happen if we pursue another candidate like that. We can’t be sure — a Winfrey administration would be a wild card, despite what we know about her political views, which are stable; her smarts, which are considerable; and her communication skills, which are superb. Part of the answer as to what would happen would depend on which party dominates which house of Congress. But even the experienced new presidents drink out of the proverbial fire hose. It is true that there is a large bureaucracy under the president who can keep the executive wheels of government going, but it’s a far cry from democracy to leave all the governing to unelected bureaucrats.

The public is free to support any candidate they choose. The Constitution only specifies that the president has to be 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and a resident of the U.S. For 14 years. As the saying goes, “any little boy can become president of the United States.” (We have not seen a little girl grow up to president yet, so that part is not yet clear.) Oprah Winfrey can no doubt gather a lot of support.

If Winfrey is interested, she has two major tasks ahead of her (other than dialing for dollars and collecting delegates): She must study up as she hasn’t since she learned her lines and moves for her most challenging movie part. She will need a large group of great minds in different areas of governance and policy. Second, she must get involved in a big way in the 2018 congressional elections to forge connections and loyalties with Democrats across the nation.

And then, she would have to convince the nation that a woman — and a black woman at that — should become President of the United States.

Virginia Sapiro is the former dean of BU’s College of Arts & Sciences, and a scholar of political science.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts and on Instagram at @buexperts.

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