Is this a new path to Oval Office? Start with a celebrity

WASHINGTON — Conservatives once complained that former president Obama was too much of a celebrity but then nominated Donald Trump to succeed him. Now, as Democrats complain about President Trump’s entertainment resume and lack of political experience, are some actually looking to Oprah Winfrey in 2020?

In the wildly speculative universe of possible presidential candidates, a new lane has emerged: the liberal celebrity. Inspired by Trump’s unlikely road from reality television to the Oval Office, a crop of left-leaning actors, artists, and moguls are looking into the mirror and hearing the ruffles and flourishes of “Hail to the Chief.”

Among them, Hollywood hunk George Clooney, a longtime fund-raiser for Democrats who has fueled speculation in recent months by saying the presidency “sounds like fun.”


There’s also Kanye West, the Chicago music star who is equal parts talented and controversial, who has promised to run in 2020.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the former wrestling star turned mega-actor, said in December he would want to be president “to serve the people and create a better environment for them.”

Celebrity billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg have also been rumored to be considering the possibility.

“You know how every senator wakes up in the morning and sees a president? That’s now every rich, well-known celebrity,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We’ve crossed a barrier here and I’m not sure we’ll ever go back.”

Then, of course, there’s Winfrey, the self-made billionaire mogul in a category of her own. On Sunday night, her impassioned Golden Globes speech sent the speculation regarding her possible candidacy into a fever pitch.

“I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon,’’ Winfrey said on the awards show, broadcast live, sounding a lot like a candidate for something. “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.’’


Oprah Winfrey spoke at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night.
Oprah Winfrey spoke at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night.Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

The chairman of the New Hampshire Democrats, a key presidential primary state, said on Twitter that he welcomed the Oprah speculation.

“Anything in this terrible time that gives people hope in the sense that there will be an end to the Trumps in the White House is something that is important,” said Ray Buckley.

Whether any of these celebrities actually join the political fracas remains to be seen. At times, pop stars have used a flirtation with elected office to boost their media profile before quietly backing off. Even Trump talked about a presidential run for years before officially signing up in 2015.

On the Republican side, “hick hop” artist Kid Rock got headlines for openly debating a possible 2018 Senate run in his home state of Michigan, but he never took concrete steps to getting his name on the ballot and later admitted he never took the concept that serious.

“[Expletive] no, I’m not running for Senate. Are you kidding me?” Kid Rock said on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show in October. “Who couldn’t figure that out?

Trump’s example could be a sign that the celebrity-to-politician track will become more commonplace. Celebrities, especially actors and musical artists, are trained storytellers who are used to connecting with audiences. They also have loads of name recognition, which could come in handy during a bound-to-be-crowded Democratic presidential primary.


“In Oprah we see the quality that we should always look for in our political leaders — someone interested in using her time and talents to help others,” wrote CNN’s Sally Kohn, the liberal commentator and former community organizer. Kohn penned an opinion column Monday called “Oprah Would Make an Exceptional President.”

Other have pointed to celebrities who have made the transition in times past.

On the Republican side, President Reagan was a Hollywood actor before becoming governor of California and eventually president. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of Terminator fame, also became governor of California. Outside of the Golden State, actor Fred Thompson served in the Senate and ran for president. Former wrestler Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota.

Dwayne Johnson attended the Golden Globes.
Dwayne Johnson attended the Golden Globes.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Democrats have their history, too. Recently departed Senator Al Franken of Minnesota was previously a comedian on “Saturday Night Live.’’ And Jerry Springer, the raunchy talk show host, was once the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati.

But 2020 just as easily could be a year where someone’s celebrity status hurts their chances.

After the election of Trump, and the daily drama of his White House, Americans could be ready to return to the comparably boring times of traditional politicians, Sabato said.

“People pick a president that’s very different from the incumbent,” Sabato said. “And while Oprah would be different in ideology and gender, she’s another celebrity. And that’s what’s going to bolster the boring, traditional politicians. They could say let’s just pick a normal person like us.”

Oprah has generated some impressive polling figures.


She had a 52 percent favorable rating overall and a 72 percent rating among Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac University poll from March 2017.

Still, only about 1 in 5 Americans said Winfrey should run in 2020, and 69 percent said she should stay away — which could be a warning sign.

In a hypothetical 2020 matchup, Public Policy Polling found Winfrey would have a lead against Trump. In a September survey, PPP found Winfrey would have a seven point advantage on Trump should the two ever meet in a general election.

Trump himself once praised Winfrey’s political acumen.

In a 1999 interview on Larry King Live, Trump was asked who would be his vice presidential choice should he ever run for president. Trump named Winfrey.

“Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice,” Trump said. “I’ll tell you, she’s really a great woman. She’s a terrific woman. She’s somebody that’s very special.”

Asked Monday about a possible presidential run by Winfrey, White House officials were pointedly less effusive.

“We welcome the challenge, whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else,” said J. Hogan Gidley, Trump White House spokesman.

George Clooney has been a Democratic fund-raiser and said the presidency “sounds like fun.”
George Clooney has been a Democratic fund-raiser and said the presidency “sounds like fun.”Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/File 2017

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.