This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 14, 2018.
The presidency of the United States, like all elected positions, doesn’t come with training wheels. The fix to what currently ails the American presidency is not more of what injured it in the first place.
It seems that with politics, just like Hollywood, what’s old is new again.
In Hollywood, the old ideas include Star Wars, Roseanne, Jurassic Park, Jumanji and many more.
In politics, it’s Mitt Romney, Justin Trudeau, Caroline Mulroney and now Oprah.
Winfrey first flirted with politics back in 2008 when she endorsed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. It is estimated that her support of Obama generated more than a million votes for the candidate and played a significant role in his fundraising capacity.
Since then, Winfrey has never indicated she would be interested in running for the U.S. presidency. As recently as this summer, Winfrey said she would not run for public office, let alone for president.
How the tides have turned. And now, anticipation is running high. Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday electrified audiences the world over and inspired media to spill thousands of barrels of ink on her potential presidential ambitions.
It triggered 3.1 billion social media impressions, the hashtag #Oprah2020 was part of 50,255 tweets and the numbers go on.
Speculation about celebrities with political aspirations is not new. Just about every presidential election cycle since the Reaganyears has seen celebrities hint about running.
However, those flirtations were usually dismissed as improbable, if not outright impossible. Conventional wisdom held that despite initial enthusiasm the lack of conventional political infrastructure doomed these ventures from the start.
Trump‘s election to the presidency fundamentally altered that long-entrenched view.
The fact that news networks, pundits, social media and water-cooler analysts are taking the #Oprah2020 hashtag seriously is because Trump has legitimized the idea that a celebrity can come from outside one of the two old-line political parties and take the Oval Office. As a result, a famous television host becoming the leader of the free world no longer seems crazy.
Perhaps more importantly, the speed and intensity with which Winfrey was able to gain legitimate momentum last week demonstrates that voters are willing to think seriously and differently about what type of person they want to hold high public office.
Does someone’s celebrity alone qualify them to be president or prime minister? Does it matter what has made them famous? Is this a new way of looking at things or is it merely an evolution of a path we have been on for some time?
It goes without saying, Oprah is in a class with very few others. She is a woman with a very significant following, and with good reason. She has acted as a spiritual leader and symbol of unity in America for decades. She is one of only a handful of people who is recognizable on a first name-only basis.
There are persuasive arguments that a President Winfrey could be a healing presidency; one that may be sorely needed after four years of division under an aggressive president who has significantly exacerbated previously existing tensions.
But there remain other challenges.
The presidency of the United States, like all elected positions, doesn’t come with training wheels. They are complex positions that require leadership, expertise and experience; a sophisticated grasp of the intricacies of public policy and a strong understanding of how power is wielded.
When it comes time to choose our leaders, hopefully we think about his or her experience, qualifications, love of country, dedication, purpose, ideology, policy and legislative expertise.
Hopefully, we don’t think too much about a candidate’s social media followers, television ratings, product lines, award acceptance speeches, hair or whether they’d be a great person with whom to have a drink.
Celebrities often bring strong advocacy skills. They are often powerful at raising money, awareness and changing people’s opinions. They are often persuasive, empathetic, expert communicators.
And that’s a great start. But what doesn’t follow is a fluency in the sphere of democratic institutions and public policy initiatives. Being a democratic leader requires much more than speaking louder than everyone else. Or having more followers on Twitter.
The fix to what currently ails the American presidency is not more of what injured it in the first place. The challenges of this presidency, the challenges that so many Americans chafe against, will not be solved by doubling down. It may well be better to change course altogether.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.