Scholars Hold Mixed Reactions About an Oprah Presidential Run - Higher Education
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Scholars Hold Mixed Reactions About an Oprah Presidential Run

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“President Oprah 2020: You get a healthcare plan, You get a healthcare plan, You all get healthcare plans! #Oprah2020,” one Twitter user wrote, adding to the hum of speculations that the media mogul would make a presidential run in 2020, following a riveting Golden Globes speech on Sunday.

While Winfrey has had a successful career as a businesswoman, philanthropist and an advocate for numerous social and political causes, political scientists and women’s studies scholars have mixed reactions about a potential presidential run for the talk-show host and billionaire.

“The praise for Oprah’s speech was illustrative of the desire for many Americans to hear a message that is both hopeful and also directly addresses what is currently one of the most salient issues in American society and American politics, which is addressing the imbalance of power between men and women that has allowed for an abusive environment in which women have been victim to sexual assault, sexual harassment and missed opportunities in the professional world,” said Dr. Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) and an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden.

Dr. Kelly Dittmar says that an Oprah presidential candidacy should not be dismissed.

Dittmar added that if Winfrey were to become a presidential candidate, it would be unwise, unfair and even “a little dangerous” for voters to immediately exclude her from the race or question her credentials. This is, in part, because many women of color often come into politics from diverse paths and routes, she added.

“By discounting certain routes to office, whether it be philanthropy, business or even entertainment, we may be missing out on a pool of women who could be quite successful both in campaigns and in what they do and what they could bring to political office…not just at the presidential level, but at all levels,” Dittmar said.

Despite the benefits that come with being an untraditional leader, some media pundits, social media users and other scholars are still holding out reservations about electing another celebrity figure to the top executive post, arguing that they lack the political experience necessary for office.

“I think Donald Trump has really sullied the office and it really helps me to understand why experience is the best teacher,” said Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an associate professor of communication and African and American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.

Whitehead said that electing another celebrity figure is a road that the country “should not go down” again. She added that it is a “knee-jerk reaction to want a Black woman” like Oprah to come in and fix the policies that are being implemented by the current administration and Republican Party.

“The idea is ‘Let’s have a Black woman come in and clean it up…come in and heal us and make us feel good about ourselves.’ That works for a television show,” but not necessarily for the highest office in the land, Whitehead cautioned.

Instead of running for the executive office in 2020, the media scholar suggested that Winfrey would make a “great” Secretary of State or that she should even run for mayor of Chicago.

“She has a wave of popularity,” said Whitehead. “Maybe we [can] use that to help change the nation, to help heal the nation, from the outside rather than inside that cocoon that we call the White House.”

Dittmar added that candidates with traditional political resumes can sometimes be overlooked when celebrities are in an election and that it is important to recognize the work that these candidates are already doing for their constituencies. For those still wanting to elect a diverse presidential candidate, Whitehead said, “Maxine Waters is there, Kamala Harris is there.”

Given that Winfrey is worth nearly three billion dollars, Whitehead said that the media titan can continue to invest in established potential candidates and the political process by putting her money, her time and her name behind the causes that keep people politically engaged, as she did with her 2008 endorsement of then-candidate President Barack Obama.

For now, it is unclear if Winfrey is actively considering running for the presidency, but close friend and co-host of CBS This Morning Gayle King said that Winfrey is “intrigued by the idea.” While we do not know what an Oprah presidency would look like, Dittmar said that the star would bring a “distinct” perspective and experience that the country has not seen at the top executive level in the United States.

After becoming the first Black woman to win the Golden Globe’s Cecil B. DeMille award, Winfrey said that it was an honor to share the moment with young girls and those that inspire her. “I want all the girls watching to know: A new day is on the horizon. When that new day finally dawns, it will be because of the magnificent women and many of them are in this room tonight,” she said Sunday.

Should Winfrey become a candidate, political scientists and others note that voters should stay informed about each candidate’s stance on issues that resonate with them.

“There is no reason that we couldn’t be looking at Oprah alongside the other more traditional candidates like our women senators or women who have served for governor,” Dittmar said. “It’s worth the public weighing the benefits and the negatives and the positives of each of those types of experiences and candidates.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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