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Oprah inspires in a way that Hillary never could

News analysis

WASHINGTON — Oprah Winfrey's still a long way from the Oval Office, but a new O-for-POTUS boomlet caught fire after she delivered the kind of inspirational and aspirational message at the Golden Globes that Hillary Clinton had trouble hammering home in the 2016 presidential election.

Anticipation of a possible celebrity throw-down between Winfrey and President Donald Trump has grown in recent months, and Winfrey turbocharged it with remarks that connected her personal story to the narrative arcs of the civil rights and #MeToo movements.

"A great speech is a speaker who has credibility on whatever subject he or she is talking about delivering a compelling message that meets a moment that demands that speaker with that message," said Sarada Peri, who served as special assistant and senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

"The moment was ripe for what Oprah did last night, and she knocked it out of the park," Peri added.

Oprah's Golden Globes speech sparks presidential speculation 1:55

There was little doubt in the political world that Winfrey was testing the waters for a presidential bid Sunday night, and she won praise for a message about a future in which powerful men no longer sexually abuse and harass women.

"I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!" Winfrey said after sharing the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was kidnapped and raped by white men in Alabama in 1944 and who never saw her attackers prosecuted.

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"And when that new day finally dawns," she continued, "it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say 'Me too' again."

Clinton "did hit on those themes but she also had to run up against 20 to 30 years of a lot of anger and hate toward her," said Basil Smikle Jr., a New York-based Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Clinton in the Senate. "A lot of what she was saying just wasn't getting through."

Image: Oprah Winfrey accepts the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award
Oprah Winfrey accepts the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. Paul Drinkwater / NBC via Getty Images

In addition to addressing the abuse of power by men, Winfrey praised the media. Noting that "the press is under siege" — a remark widely interpreted as a jab at Trump — she said "speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have."

While there have been rumblings about a potential Winfrey presidential candidacy for years, they have gained traction since the election of Trump, a real-estate developer turned reality-TV star. In short, many Democrats would like their own celebrity to go into battle against the president.

Public Policy Polling showed Winfrey with a 47 percent to 40 percent lead over Trump in a March 2017 survey.

"Oprah is perhaps a little more likable than Hillary," said Tom Jensen, the poll's director. But he said that "there's a good precedent" — namely Clinton — for a popular woman losing approval among the electorate when she becomes a political candidate.

Winfrey, however, has none of Clinton's political baggage.

She once assiduously avoided politics, but then became an important validator for Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Her backing may have been responsible for as many as one million votes for Obama over Clinton, said Craig Garthwaite, an associate professor of strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, who studied the effect of Winfrey's endorsement.

"Her public endorsement of then-candidate Obama in late 2007 was persuasive and helpful," said Josh Earnest, an NBC/MSNBC political analyst who worked on Obama's first campaign and later served as his White House press secretary. "That was an early indication of what she displayed last night in her own right — which is good political instincts and a real vision of the kind of leadership that she thinks our country should have."

Trump also has acknowledged the potential for Winfrey to be a force in the political arena.

In 1999, he told Chris Matthews of "Hardball" that he was thinking about her as a running mate if he ran for president in 2000.

"Would you consider a woman for your running mate, and if so, who?" Matthews asked.

"Well, I would consider, and as Chris can tell you, I threw out the name of a friend of mine who I think the world of. She's great. And some people thought it was incredible I did. Some people didn't. But Oprah, I said Oprah Winfrey, who's really great," Trump said. "And I think we would be a very formidable team."

In 2015, he told ABC that "I'd love to have Oprah" as a VP candidate and "I think we'd win easily, actually."

Earnest said there's an "optimism lane" that Winfrey could fill in a Democratic primary. "You'd be hard pressed to find a candidate who could better capitalize on the opportunity to seize that lane than Oprah Winfrey — if she runs," he said.

Winfrey, a Democratic donor in the past, would start with some serious advantages in the party's presidential primary.

Most candidates have to worry about introducing themselves to voters and raising enough money to compete. Not Winfrey. Like Trump, she's a household name. And like the president, she has plenty of money — several billion dollars in her case.

The challenge for Winfrey would be figuring out how to start taking political positions without alienating segments of the electorate. Clinton enjoyed approval ratings in the two-thirds range when she was secretary of state — a job that allowed her to present herself as distant from domestic politics — only to see her numbers crash when she started campaigning for president.

Smikle said Clinton helped set the stage for a Winfrey candidacy.

"She certainly created the framework that would allow us to view Trump in the appropriate light that would make people say, 'Let's give Oprah a look as well,'" he said. "I don't know if (Oprah's) likely, but she's certainly plausible."

CORRECTION (Jan. 8, 1:23 p.m): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of a former Obama speechwriter. Her name is Sarada Peri, not Serada.