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Marisa Kabas Oprah 2020? Liberals want a champion. But defeating Trump is not Oprah's burden to bear.

White Americans say they want Oprah to be president, yet vote against black women's interests at the polls.
Image: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Obama his wife Michelle and entertainer and talk show host Oprah wave in Manchester
When the stars align.Brian Snyder / Reuters
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President Oprah Winfrey. It’s surely not the craziest idea. For years we’ve welcome her into our hearts and homes, so why not the Oval Office? And in the aftermath of Sunday night’s Golden Globe ceremony, it seems to be all anyone can talk about — or at least, all Twitter and cable news can talk about. Mainly, will the mogul run, and moreover, should she?

The answer to this question isn’t up to you or me, of course, and a source close to Winfrey told NBC’s Kate Snow on Monday night, “It’s not happening. She has no intention of running.” But that hasn’t stopped folks young and old, liberal and conservative, from declaring Winfrey as the Democrats’ absolute and only option for 2020. Predictably, this resulted in others tearing her down just as quickly, accusing her of being a neoliberal (among other critiques), an out-of-touch rich person, and even a Harvey Weinstein enabler.

There’s no doubt Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement on Sunday was inspiring, even presidential. She addressed our society’s mistreatment of women, which “transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace,” and assured “all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!"

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I’ll even admit that my gut reaction to the speech was, yes, “Oprah for president.” And glancing at my Twitter timeline I quickly saw a lot of (mostly white) women exclaiming similar thoughts. It was a natural reaction from Americans currently starved for inspiration in leadership.

But it’s actually not bold to say that a woman of Winfrey’s status ought to consider a presidential run. It shouldn’t take a lifetime achievement award to awaken white women (53% of whom voted for Trump) to the fact that a black woman could and should be president someday. What would be bold is amplifying the issues that impact black women, like fighting against racist voter ID laws and gerrymandering, and encouraging black women already in public service — like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams — to aim for the highest office in the country.

Many activists and other professionals active on Twitter also noted how these fervent (often white) calls for a President Winfrey fit into a classic liberal pattern of championing black women in one breath, then voting against their interests in the next.

April Reign, founder of the successful #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which points out the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood awards’ shows, put it like this:

"Stop begging strong Black women to be president: Michelle, Oprah, whatever. It's weird. And Lord knows when Black women try to lead, y'all attempt to silence and erase us. So how would that work, exactly?"

Later, when I read Meryl Streep's comments following the Golden Globes ("I don’t think she [Winfrey] had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice.”) Reign’s point crystallized.

Of course she has a choice. Perhaps Streep was merely setting an intention, but the point is that Winfrey can continue her work as an advocate for women and girls, as a Weight Watchers spokesperson, as best friend to Gayle King, as partner to Stedman Graham, as whatever she would like. Our desire to be saved from Trumpism is not Winfrey’s burden to shoulder.

Similarly, at the American Institute of Architects' annual conference in August, former First Lady and Winfrey’s close friend Michelle Obama, was asked about her own political aspirations. Would she ever run for president, as so many have wished out loud since Inauguration Day 2017?

"It's all well and good until you start running, and then the knives come out,” Obama said. "Politics is tough, and it's hard on a family. I wouldn't ask my children to do this again because, when you run for higher office, it's not just you, it's your whole family."

Former First lady Michelle Obama sits with Oprah Winfrey and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at the opening ceremonies of the the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in 2009.
Former First lady Michelle Obama sits with Oprah Winfrey and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at the opening ceremonies of the the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in 2009.Charles Dharapak / Pool via Reuters

And yet, Obama’s comments didn’t stop former Bill Clinton pollster Douglas Schoen from writing in September, “The only person I can see accomplishing this [beating Trump in 2020] would be none other than the party’s most popular political figure: Michelle Obama.”

Schoen’s essay, coming as it did mere days after Obama’s statements, demonstrated a complete lack of regard for what Obama said she wanted. As with Winfrey, it was all about what everyone else needed from her.

The question of whether Winfrey is qualified to be president is a separate — and long — conversation. One thing's for sure: In 2018, in the context of President Donald Trump, a candidate’s readiness is subjective. Most of us were raised to believe being president required public service experience, a deep knowledge of policy, and in all likelihood, a law degree.

But the fundamentals of the game have changed. Now it could also mean the ability to inspire, the ability to motivate voters, experience in grassroots work outside politics, and so on. You don’t have to agree with the new rules, but if you’re evaluating Winfrey’s appropriateness for the role based on past leaders, you have yet to metabolize the new normal.

On MSNBC on Monday, Tarana Burke told Chris Jansing, "America needs its first black female president,” calling Winfrey “phenomenal.” Tellingly, however, she did not say whether that first black female president should be Oprah Winfrey. Yes, America does need its first black female president. But it will be when she, whoever she may be, is ready. And certainly not because Twitter demands it.

Marisa Kabas is the Editorial Director of Hope — a mobile platform connecting media and activism — and a freelance writer. Her writing has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, and Glamour. She is based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her on Twitter @marisakabas.

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