Could Oprah Winfrey really run for president?

8:58 am on 9 January 2018

By Anthony Zurcher, BBC North America reporter

Oprah Winfrey could be actively considering a run for US President, according to media reports, and her speech at the Golden Globes provided four major clues about her White House ambitions.

Oprah Winfrey with former US President Barack Obama in 2013.

Oprah Winfrey with former US President Barack Obama in 2013. Photo: AFP

During the opening of the 2018 Golden Globe Awards programme, host Seth Meyers toyed with the idea of a possible Oprah Winfrey presidential campaign. When Winfrey took the stage later that night, the speech she gave was no joke.

There are reports emerging in the US that she is actively entertaining the notion.

And her speech sounded an awful lot like a presidential candidate on the campaign stump - polished and effective.

Watch her full speech here:

Here are a few reasons why.

1. The personal touch

"In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother's house in Milwaukee, watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: 'The winner is Sidney Poitier'."

Authenticity has become a buzzword in American politics of late, ever since Donald Trump skewered a field of polished politicians on his way to the White House in 2016. Winfrey opened her speech on Sunday night by recalling what it was like when she was a child, watching the first black person win a major Academy Award.

The "humble roots" narrative is a staple for many an accomplished politician, a way of grounding candidates to ordinary Americans despite their rise to the nation's elite. By reminding viewers of her childhood spent on "linoleum floors" - in Wisconsin, a rust-belt swing state, no less - Winfrey hits the mark.

2. A statement of purpose

"What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have."

Truth against power isn't exactly a new theme in US politics, but it is an effective one.

Mr Trump campaigned on his own version. He was the outsider railing against career politicians who, as he said in his inaugural address, "reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost".

After a tip of the hat to a free press that uncovers "the absolute truth", Winfrey broadened her message to include women from all walks of life - domestic employees, farmhands, factory workers, doctors and soldiers - who have "endured years of abuse and assault".

If Winfrey were to run, her adversaries would try to characterise her as a Hollywood insider, out of touch with the real world. Passages like the above show how she might try to position herself as the voice of a movement.

3. A compelling anecdote

"Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up."

Midway through her speech, Winfrey narrowed the focus, recounting the story of Recy Taylor, who was abducted and raped by six white men in 1944. Taylor's case was taken up by the NAACP and Rosa Parks, 11 years before she became famous for her Montgomery bus protest.

Ronald Reagan, during his State of the Union addresses in the 1980s, innovated the use of personal heroes to illustrate his points - an oratory technique that's now a staple of political speeches. Winfrey ticks another box.

Actress and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey with the Cecil B DeMille Award. She was praised for her speech which addressed recent sexual harassment scandals sweeping Hollywood.

Oprah Winfrey with the Cecil B DeMille Award. Photo: AFP

4. The call to action

"I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, 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."

Might as well print the bumper stickers and the yard signs now. Every campaign needs a catchy slogan, and Winfrey's "a new day is on the horizon" fits the bill. So does "for a brighter morning", which she tossed out a sentence earlier.

Watch the speech again, this time with the sound turned off. Notice the faces of the celebrities in the audience, hanging on Winfrey's every word. She made a connection with them - and, likely, with many of the viewers at home.

And here are the buts...

Presidential boomlets come and go, of course, and 2020 is a lifetime away, politically speaking.

If Winfrey wants to get in the game, however, the door is open.

Her speech was no accident. It was a national rebranding from a powerful woman who - with her team - knows a bit about the tastes and temperament of the American public.

Winfrey has the name recognition, the money and, if Sunday's speech is any indication, a message to run on.

Alex Burns of the New York Times asks who, among Democrats, could give her a tough fight for the party's nomination.

The list is certainly short. Bernie Sanders? Joe Biden? Maybe Senator Elizabeth Warren?

Yes, Winfrey is a political novice - and Democrats could decide after four years of the Trump presidency that the American public would prefer someone with governing experience or, perhaps, a populist firebrand.

Although Mr Trump was seemingly bulletproof throughout his presidential campaign, there's no telling how Winfrey would hold up under the national political spotlight.

And while she was a voice of Middle America during the height of her talk-show stardom, her ties to the liberal Hollywood elite could become a political liability.

Then again, Winfrey's "new day on the horizon" could be one where celebrity and politics are forever joined at the hip.

If Mr Trump truly has redefined the modern US presidency - of what being president means and what it takes to get to the White House - then Sunday night may have been the starting gun of an extraordinary 2020 campaign.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs