Erika D. Smith

President Oprah? It’s time to talk about the right role for billionaires in politics

This image released by NBC shows Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on Sunday.
This image released by NBC shows Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on Sunday. AP

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things” – and that’s exactly why I’m terrified. One speech, one amazing, electrifying speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, and we’re already seriously talking about “Oprah 2020.”


That’s how desperate we lefty Americans are for leadership – myself included.

The billionaire entertainment diva hasn’t said anything, but two of her friends told CNN that she is “actively thinking” about a run for president. Rep. Jackie Speier, a San Mateo Democrat, is all in. “Run, Oprah, run!” she tweeted on Monday. “An army of women would fight for you.”

And Speier isn’t wrong. Oprah could win.

The Montecito resident certainly has the money, the brains, the empathy and the crossover appeal for it. Her vocabulary consists of words that are more than three syllables, which is another plus.

But does Oprah have the qualifications to be president? And what exactly are those qualifications anyway? It’s hard to tell these days, in this era of reality TV politics.

No Democrat – especially no Democrat from California – wants to be seen as following in Donald Trump’s footsteps. But the billionaire businessman did lay out a blueprint that’s hard to ignore.

In one fell, shocking swoop, he proved that anyone – and, by anyone, I mean, anyone rich and famous – can be president of the United States, regardless of experience, competence or basic manners.

It used to be that voters went to the polls to decide: “Who is the best candidate?” Then, it was: “Which candidate is the lesser of two evils?”

Now, with Trump stubbornly ensconced in the White House, the question has morphed into a statement among liberals: “Not only can anyone can be president, but anyone can be a better president than Trump.”

What’s a billionaire Democrat to do then? Run for elected office or sit on the sidelines?

The answer lies not with the belief that anyone can be president, but with the seemingly forgotten question of whether anyone should be president – or senator or governor, for that matter.

Career politicians and bureaucrats aren’t exactly in vogue these days, but having some sort of experience or understanding of public office matters, just as much as the ability to inspire the masses with lofty oratory. To ignore this is to take the wrong lesson from Trump’s disastrous time in office.

Nevertheless, we Americans are desperate for leadership.

Oprah inspired millions on Sunday night by talking about the domestic workers and farmworkers who “endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” And then on Monday morning, the Trump administration made us depressed by announcing it would deport some of those very same workers starting in 2019. This time, it’s the Salvadorans.

And, so, voters will continue to look to Oprah and to other out-spoken, politically active billionaires.

On Monday, Tom Steyer, announced that he would stay off the ballot in California for the U.S. Senate – for now – and instead spend his money trying to oust Republicans from Congress in the midterm elections.

“People have been asking me for 12 months and five days what I’m going to run for,” he told The Washington Post on Monday. “I’m not going to run for anything. I’ve said all along, the question I always ask is: Where can I make the most differential impact? And when I look at the jobs I can run for in California, they all have reputable Democrats running for them already.”

He left the door open for 2020, though.

In light of the live-tweeted, dumpster fire that is already 2018, there could be worse things. We’re in desperate times.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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