SAN DIEGO – In 2007, I was at brunch with friends when politics came up. And suddenly, I found myself trying to explain why I thought a political newcomer from Illinois would vanquish a crowded field of more experienced candidates and become the Democratic presidential nominee.
I struggled. There was nothing on Barack Obama’s resume to suggest that he could win the nomination, let alone the presidency. I just had a feeling that the self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” was poised to turn the political system upside down. There was something about Obama – some inexplicable “X-factor” – that you didn’t see in more seasoned politicians like John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton.
Here’s what I didn’t understand at the time: Getting elected president isn’t about resumes. It isn’t about experience or IQ tests or knowing the issues inside and out. It’s about excitement. Obama generated it; the others didn’t. He got 20,000 people at rallies; some of his opponents were lucky to get 200.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Now we’re presented with the tantalizing idea that Oprah Winfrey might run for president in 2020.
Within 48 hours of Winfrey declaring to a cheering crowd at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles that “a new day is on the horizon,” smarty-pants anchors and pundits in New York and Washington were pooh-poohing the idea that the broadcast mogul would run for president or be up to the job if she were elected.
According to this elite bunch, not just any media savvy tycoon with loads of charisma and instant name recognition can walk in off the street, run for president and win the whole enchilada. Who knew?
Besides, getting elected to office is hard work, say a bunch of people – most of whom have never put their names on the line and run for anything.
One exception is MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress who used to support Donald Trump and now attacks him with regularity. Scarborough, who now says he’s an independent, went off at length – on his show, “Morning Joe” – about how, despite her popularity with a large chunk of America, Winfrey might not be up to the job of running for president.
In fact, he seemed to say that people should stick to one calling. This from a lawyer who became a congressman who became a cable host who also plays in a rock band. Maybe Winfrey isn’t as smart and talented as Scarborough.
Americans are asked to believe that many of the same people who were wrong about Trump are now right about Winfrey. But “experts” are not what they used to be. Whether these commentators are on the right or the left, their crystal balls are out of whack. In this unprecedented political environment, no one can predict with any certainty what’s going to happen next in the arena.
We are also expected to ignore the rhetorical backflips that both political parties are doing to square what they said about one billionaire yesterday with what they’re saying about another billionaire today.
In 2016, Democrats essentially said about the idea of a Trump candidacy: “This is crazy. You can’t have a political novice, who has never run for office, who doesn’t know about politics or public policy and comes from within a bubble of like-minded people. The presidency is not an entry-level job.”
In 2020, if Winfrey runs for president, we’re likely to hear the same sort of things from Republicans.
Eye-rolling could become the new national pastime.
Of course, Obama wasn’t the first presidential hopeful to have the X-factor of ginning up excitement. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had it. And it’s no coincidence that all went on to be elected, then re-elected. The two-term club is pretty exclusive, and, to become a member, you have to capture the imagination of the American people.
Trump does that. While I don’t agree with most of his agenda, and I think he’s been bad for our political system, there is no denying the electricity he generates. Ask Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.
Getting elected president is hard work, but it isn’t rocket science. If your candidacy excites people to their core, you have a huge advantage. If it doesn’t, well, don’t give up your day job.
Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump also have another thing in common: being underestimated. Don’t make that mistake with Oprah.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.