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Oprah for president frenzy reflects 'desperation' among Democrats, experts say

Oprah Winfrey made an impassioned speech at the

Oprah Winfrey made an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes Awards after accepting the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 7, 2018. Photo Credit: Getty Images / NBCUniversal

The fervor over a potential White House bid by Oprah Winfrey could be felt last week from Hollywood to Washington.

“That was the voice of a leader,” actress Meryl Streep gushed to the BBC of Winfrey’s impassioned Golden Globes speech about the “Time’s Up” movement against sexual misconduct.

“Her voice is powerful and important,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said.

Political experts say the frenzy, which manifested on social media as #Oprah2020, reflected deep anxiety among those who are eager to unseat President Donald Trump but worried about the Democrats’ lack of a standard-bearer.

Enter the idea of Winfrey — the former talk show queen with magnetism, massive wealth and 100 percent name recognition.

“It’s desperation, it’s a lack of creativity,” said Christina Greer, a Democratic political analyst and NYU McSilver Institute fellow. “It’s a lazy approach. Oprah’s supposed to come in and do what her TV show does, which is make you feel good without challenging you.”

Winfrey’s partner, Stedman Graham, had fueled speculation after the Jan. 7 awards show by telling The Los Angeles Times there is “absolutely” a chance she would run.

Winfrey’s speech supporting the “Me Too” coalition of women against sexual harassment earned a standing ovation. “So I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon,” she said.

Winfrey since then has not addressed the possibility of mounting a challenge to Trump and in past interviews has dismissed it. But her superstar stature means the prospect alone has commanded a response from a spectrum of big entertainment and political names as well as the president himself.

“Yeah, I’ll beat Oprah,” Trump told reporters Tuesday, who then discussed the last time he was a guest on her eponymous show. “I like Oprah, I don’t think she’s going to run.”

Winfrey would beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 50 percent to 39 percent, according to an NPR/PBS News/Marist poll released Friday. But 54 percent of those surveyed said they do not want her to run.

Political experts said they understand Winfrey’s appeal as a Trump foil: she’s inclusive, she’s self-made and she’s a larger-than-life figure who, like him, would dominate headlines.

Plus, the Democratic Party has a vacuum — no obvious frontrunner for 2020 as Hillary Clinton was in 2016.

Challenger names being floated include former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Gillibrand.

“They’ve been struggling to find their savior and their leader for a while since they coronated Hillary,” said New York-based Republican consultant Jessica Proud.

Democrats rushed to check a demographic box with Clinton without an honest assessment of her capabilities and could be repeating that mistake now with Winfrey, Proud said.

The party must focus on its substance, said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic consultant.

“For us to beat Donald Trump, the Democrats must stand for something and have real policy proposals and actually combat income inequality and make Americans’ lives better,” she said.

“Oprah can move many, many voters and she can use that on herself or she can call attention to issues,” Katz said.

The work for the left also includes building a bench and cultivating candidates, especially women of color, beyond the local and statehouse levels, Greer said.

The midterm elections will be telling, she said.

“I think we need to get past 2018 first,” Greer said.


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