Oprah 2020? Democrats Swing From Giddy to Skeptical at the Prospect

In the imagination of some Democrats, Ms. Winfrey might offer an easy way out of those problems. She inspires crucial groups for the party — women and African-Americans — and alienates few. She has cast herself in American culture as an avatar of optimism, not defined in ideological terms. Having made a career out of preaching the values of empowerment and inclusion, she represents in some ways a natural counterpoint to Mr. Trump’s proud pugilism. Senior Democrats in Washington said on Monday they had received no signal from Ms. Winfrey that she hoped to seek the White House.

David Axelrod, the former chief strategist for Barack Obama, said Ms. Winfrey was a figure of unique political potential, with “a boundless capacity for empathy and a preternatural ability to communicate powerfully and authentically — as we saw at the Golden Globes.”

Mr. Axelrod questioned, however, whether Ms. Winfrey would be the right fit for 2020: “Would she want to submit herself to the unforgiving, relentless and sometimes absurd process of running for president?” he wondered, adding: “Will there be hunger in 2020 for someone with some experience in government, after Trump?”

Some Democrats expressed skepticism and even frustration about the swirl of fascination with Ms. Winfrey, arguing that the party was jumping the gun with fevered speculation about 2020. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a young liberal in the chamber, wrote tersely on Twitter: “Hey. Let’s focus on winning in 2018. Thanks.”

Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist from the party’s progressive wing, said it would be a mistake for Democrats to rush toward a magnetic personality rather than hashing out a compelling agenda for the midterm elections and beyond.

“Beating Trump isn’t just about finding the right candidate — we have to show what we stand for,” Ms. Katz said. “Other than ‘we all get a car,’ what will an Oprah presidency look like?” she added, referring to when Ms. Winfrey famously gave a car to every audience member at her show.

Ms. Winfrey’s sudden prominence in the nation’s political imagination speaks, in some respects, to the merging of politics and entertainment in the American mind. She has occupied a singular role in the television industry, parlaying roles as a local news anchor and a talk-show host in Chicago into a media empire that includes her own cable network and a fortune estimated at close to $3 billion. Gallup polling regularly finds Ms. Winfrey among the country’s most admired women, alongside Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, suggested — with a dose of skepticism — that Ms. Winfrey was the kind of political outsider Democrats might embrace.

Alluding to Mr. Trump’s lack of experience, Ms. Pelosi tartly told a small group of reporters that Ms. Winfrey had other qualities going for her: “Oprah has read books. She knows how to identify talent.”

“If we’re going into a place where they are devaluing experience in terms of substance and legislative acumen and stuff like that,” Ms. Pelosi said, “you might as well have somebody who knows what they don’t know and would get the best possible people there.”

Ms. Winfrey’s commercial reach transcends race and income level, analysts say, propelling so many books and products to overnight success that it has earned its own sobriquet: “The Oprah Effect.” In 2015, Ms. Winfrey bought a 10 percent stake in Weight Watchers and assumed a position on the company’s board, a move that instantly doubled the company’s sluggish share price and added $400 million to its market value.

Other investments have eluded that Midas touch. Ms. Winfrey’s cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications Inc., initially struggled to gain traction and last year earned an average of 462,000 prime time viewers daily. In December, Discovery said it would take majority control of OWN, purchasing 24.5 percent of the channel for $70 million from Ms. Winfrey’s company, Harpo.

Ms. Winfrey’s most potent appeal, industry analysts say, is among somewhat older consumers — or perhaps, voters — with women over 55 as her strongest cohort. She is especially popular among African-American women and white suburban women, two groups Democrats will rely on in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

By Monday afternoon, the White House had responded to the threat of Oprah in 2020. “We welcome the challenge,” said Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the president, “whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else.”

But Ms. Winfrey has approached politics cautiously over the years, engaging highly selectively. In 2007, she intervened for Mr. Obama, holding rallies for him and hailing him as “the one.” And in 2013, she hosted a fund-raising event for Cory Booker, in his first bid for Senate in New Jersey.

During the 2016 campaign, Ms. Winfrey endorsed Mrs. Clinton but never ventured onto the campaign trail. Though Ms. Winfrey and her staff discussed a possible appearance with the Clinton campaign, none was ever scheduled. Ms. Winfrey’s aides cited her focus on righting her television network as the reason for her difficult schedule.

Minyon Moore, a Clinton adviser who communicated with the Winfrey team, said the campaign had been “delighted” to have Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement. Should Ms. Winfrey seek to assemble a campaign team for 2020, Ms. Moore said, “I suspect she would have her pick.”

Less certain is whether Ms. Winfrey could navigate the ideological pitfalls of a presidential campaign and give voice not just to broad themes, but actual policy prescriptions. While Ms. Winfrey has aligned herself generally with Democrats like Mr. Obama, her views on a range of issues from financial regulation to drone warfare are opaque. She drew criticism from the left last year after saying in an interview that she felt hopeful and believed Mr. Trump had been “humbled” after meeting with Mr. Obama during the presidential transition.

Alixandria Lapp, a strategist helping lead Democrats’ effort to retake the House, said the profile of a media mogul outsider would be an uncomfortable match for the party.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that Democrats will ever nominate our own version of Donald Trump — a celebrity with no government experience — because our party tends to respect government and governing experience,” Ms. Lapp said.

Ms. Winfrey has recently taken on political topics as a special correspondent for CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” including a segment on the country’s political divisions and another on the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

But even to close friends and admirers, the prospect of an Oprah 2020 race appeared far-fetched or impossible as recently as last year. After Mr. Trump’s inauguration, when the traditional barriers to entry into presidential politics appeared to melt away, Ms. Winfrey’s associates dismissed the idea.

A reporter who last March contacted Ms. Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King of CBS News, got an emphatic reaction to the 2020 question.

“NOT A CHANCE!!!!!” Ms. King replied at the time, adding: “In caps for a reason.”

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