Last week, Oprah Winfrey seemingly contemplated a run for the White House in 2020. When asked if she’d considered entering that race, she responded that the 2016 presidential election had dismissed her previous concerns that she might not be qualified enough for the job.
In other words: If Donald Trump can do it, so can I.
Once one of the most influential personalities in daytime TV, Winfrey, without a doubt, had the Midas touch. Not only was she able to send authors’ book sales into orbit, but she practically killed the beef industry by expressing an opinion and made Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil household names.
Winfrey, a black woman from Mississippi, did something even more impressive that might not have been so appreciated at the time. She started often-uncomfortable conversations about race and did so with the seemingly open hearts and minds of a particular demographic: white women. For many of Winfrey’s viewers, hearing about such a sensitive and controversial subject from someone they admired, whom many considered a virtual friend, made the perspectives shared more palatable. Fans watched as bigots changed their ways, interracial couples found support from once-prejudiced relatives, and minorities shared their stories of racism. Winfrey helped bridge a gap and seemed to have an intangible connection with her majority-Caucasian audience.
However, as years have passed, Winfrey may be losing her touch, indicating that it’s too late for a presidential run. For instance, after Winfrey declared her support for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 53 percent of white women resisted following her lead and voted for Trump for president.
White comedian Nikki Glaser joked that had Winfrey’s show still been around, her sisters might have voted differently in the election. While trying to hold Winfrey responsible for the historic outcome is ridiculous, Glaser may have a point. Had Winfrey’s show remained on the air, could it have united a polarized America and affected the outcome of the election?
Jenn White, host of WBEZ Chicago’s podcast Making Oprah, acknowledged that Winfrey remains an important voice today with O, The Oprah Magazine and her OWN cable channel. However, the weekly access to 40 million viewers was a large part of what made Winfrey’s influence possible. Persuading just 10 percent of that audience to subscribe to a magazine or see a film could have a huge impact.
“The influence of the show was singular. It came at a time when it was possible to gather tens of millions of people around a single hour of television. People formed a habit of tuning in at 4 to listen to what she was talking about,” said White. “Being able to bring that many people—white women and women from all walks of life and men—together, that was a function for that period of time in TV, and we’re not in the period.”
At its most popular, Winfrey’s show attracted 40 million viewers each week. “People watch TV differently [now],” White said. “When the show was at its height, we were in a different time as media consumers.”
There was arguably less media to consume six years ago, when Winfrey’s show ended. Now, with several news pundits on every network, blogs and websites populating Facebook feeds, and even YouTube shows attracting thousands of viewers, it’s not hard to imagine that Winfrey’s voice might have become lost in the crowd had she remained on TV until today—past the 30-year mark.
Winfrey publicly endorsed Clinton at least twice, to little fanfare and minimal coverage, possibly supporting the theory that Winfrey’s days of unlimited influence have passed.
However, many also counted out now-President Donald J. Trump, doubting his ability to rise above his reality-TV persona and actually ascend to the highest position in the U.S. government.
“We live in a celebrity culture, and there’s something to be said about entering a political race with the force of that name recognition behind you,” said White.
So, despite her somewhat waning influence, Winfrey—whose mogul status includes acting in HBO’s upcoming The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and in big- and small-screen hits such as Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Greenleaf—is still one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. As we’ve learned, that’s more of an asset than a liability when running for office.
“There are lessons to be learned about the power of celebrity,” said White, “and how the power of celebrity in one realm can transfer over into political power and political recognition.”
So maybe it’s not too late for President Oprah after all.