After having published my two volume history of the presidency, I began to dream that Oprah would make it her summer reading. The designation would mean 200,000 copies would be sold. Instead, she chose Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the tale of a frustrated married woman who commits suicide. Too bad.
Now Oprah is supporting Barack Obama for president of the United States and is campaigning in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. Will it make a difference? First, Oprah’s is not just a celebrity endorsement. Barbra Streisand has endorsed the Clintons again, Chuck Norris is with Reverend Huckebee-a strange mix. Sean Penn is supporting Dennis Kucinich, a most understandable endorsement. But Oprah is different. She is not just another endorsee, and she has never traded her appeal for a night in the Lincoln bedroom. Also, unlike Penn she is not an anti-American. After the Katrina catastrophe, she was in New Orleans before the Feds were.
Millions of people-three quarters women-watch her every week day and listen to her advise on everything from fashions to yeast infections. She is remarkably decent and honorable, and genuinely concerned about her viewers. At times she is patronizing-oh, look at me, I used to be poor and now I am very rich and can give every teacher in my audience a free refrigerator. And she helped to introduce Dr. Phil and his money making machine of a family, which is reason alone to cut her off your xmas list.
But still, we like and respect her.
So what is her effect on Obama.
She is likely to increase Obama’s visibility and make his message more available to larger numbers of voters, especially lower income women. In a sense, she has to sell the idea that he is better for women than the woman running for president.
So Oprah can draw a larger crowd for his message. But Obama’s message is diffuse. He talks of a new politics which we all want. But what are the public policy outcomes of those new polices. He has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, which Hillary and John Edwards did not. But now we are there in force, how do we get out? He says that we will start moving troops home and that he will talk to regional powers about a settlement. Did he ever try to get the Arab states to agree on anything? He has a deficient medical care proposal-not universal care as Edwards and Hillary want. I am genuinely unclear what he is saying about illegal immigration.
He has talked about education, more than his opponents, but what of the environment and energy? He supports abortion rights, but that is not his issue. And he has been candid about the opposition of many black ministers to gay rights-a position he does not share.
It is not that he doesn’t have positions relevant to the issues of our time, but that he really does not run an issue campaign. That is too 1960s , too confrontational…well too Clintonesque. Can we love Oprah and still vote for an issues campaign?