Slow down on the Oprah presidency talk. This still is America.
Since Oprah Winfrey delivered her dazzling acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes, political talking heads have buzzed about whether she will seek the 46th presidency. CNN recently reported that Oprah, according to two close friends, is “actively thinking” about running. And her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, informed the Los Angeles Times, “It’s up to the people. … She would absolutely [run for president].”
With the idea of an Oprah candidacy bustling through the public debate, many journalists are weighing her odds of winning, concluding that Democratic challengers should quake in fear should she enter the ring.
Politico’s Playbook deemed her a formidable foe: “We bet she has pretty high approval ratings among, well, everyone. She’s universally known. She’d raise the money quite easily. She’s a billionaire, so she could say she has business chops. Imagine Donald Trump talking trash about Oprah! Quite frankly, there isn’t any clear Democratic favorite that would clear the field at the moment. Don’t count someone like her out.”
Alex Burns, political reporter for The New York Times, echoed the sentiments:
Still, Ms. Winfrey could face a difficult fight for the Democratic nomination, especially against _________
It is tough to finish that sentence
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) January 8, 2018
“But first, Ms. Winfrey will have to get past potential competitors such as Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.” You see what I mean.
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) January 8, 2018
Yet, this same crowd (political journalists) is the reason we should discount the likelihood that she could win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the presidency.
Many have overlearned a lesson from 2016, the lesson being that we must reimagine who can win the White House. No longer must a person be a politician or famous war general — celebrity satisfies the burden and thus Oprah, so the argument goes, presents a major challenge in 2020.
A necessary but not sufficient condition for Donald Trump’s win, however, was that the political media failed to seriously and continuously interrogate his political aptitude. The knowledge level of a political novice that close to the most powerful position in the free world should have been regarded as the most important issue in the campaign by the press but wasn’t. In what makes a lot more sense now, Matt Lauer, for instance, pressed Hillary Clinton during the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, 2016, but allowed Trump to skate by, failing to correct misstatements of facts. Comparable failures continue to recur, most recently with an interview conducted by Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, who refused to probe Trump with pointed questions. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver highlighted the problem with this media failure:
One argument for asking follow-up questions when you actually get a chance to interview Trump is that he reveals his inner monologue all the time on Twitter anyway. The marginal value of publishing a one-way conversation would be higher if he were more reserved on this forum. https://t.co/ZsdNrI3SQQ
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 29, 2017
We should not expect the media to treat a black woman, not even Oprah, similarly. If she struggles to display command over domestic and foreign policy issues, the media will pounce, transforming the “Oprah is running” narrative into an “Oprah is unfit” narrative that will depress her likelihood of victory. And such a story is much more likely to occupy center stage for the duration of the campaign.
Women endure extra scrutiny when entering the political arena, as the previous election demonstrated, a reality only exacerbated when that woman has black skin. Our sexist society scoffs at the notion that women can perform as capably as men, forcing women, particularly black women, to clear hurdles men never encounter. Oprah will not benefit from the implicit assumption that a male nonpolitician would benefit from: that she could perhaps still do the job despite an atypical resume.
The media lacks racial diversity, and even if reporters and editors showcase more racial tolerance than the broader population, they nonetheless fall victim to racial stereotyping. Notice how the media, for instance, depicts white male murderers like good kids gone awry but recount the tales of black victims of police brutality through a prism of their personal failings. The media extends a measure of forgiveness and empathy to white folk that they hesitate to extend to black folk. Even if Oprah learned policy quickly, she will err on the campaign trail — even seasoned politicians do — and once that occurs, how will the media treat her?
White men have long reaped jobs and opportunities they had no business receiving. This subplot features prominently in the “white man in America” story. The “black woman in America” corollary contains no such entry. If Oprah stands a chance to be president, she will have to clearly demonstrate her fitness for the Oval Office beyond that of a similarly situated white man. The white journalists pontificating gleefully about the specter of President Oprah will make sure of that.
Sure, she’s Oprah, one of the most respected and adored living Americans, a feat managed in spite of her blackness. But still, twice as hard, twice as good.
Even for Oprah.