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Oprah doesn't need to be president to bring change

Having a black woman as president would not just break the glass ceiling for America. It would shatter the glass ceiling under which little girls have grown up—exactly the ones who Oprah mentioned were watching in her Golden Globes speech on Sunday—who are overly ambitious dreamers and long to see someone who looks like them at such a pinnacle of American success. A black female president would signal the first streaks of light on the horizon for those who are tired of saying and hearing “me too.”

If our nation follows the trend that elected our current president and disregards previous political experience as a prerequisite to office, Oprah has everything she needs to win: a dedicated following, skill in public speaking, resolve to push through the lengthy presidential race and certainly enough money to fund a presidential campaign.

Oprah’s following comes from her thoughtful dialogue with guests on her show, where she demonstrates an almost superhuman ability to understand and connect with people all across the spectrum of the human race—whether they are celebrities or ordinary Americans. Oprah’s Angel Network, which began in 1998 and is now under the umbrella of the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, has given out numerous education scholarships and helped Hurricane Katrina victims. Winfrey has personally given over $10 million to help provide students of color with access to a better education in both secondary and post-secondary schooling. She also donated $12 million to the newest Smithsonian museum, the National of African American History and Culture, and gave $1 million to support communities in Africa. Clearly, Oprah doesn’t need to be president to enact change where she sees fit and to unite people despite their differences, which should be top priorities for any leader.  

While Americans expect the officials who represent them to share their views and take a stand on policies and issues accordingly, celebrities are not held to the same standard. For the most part, people like Oprah are free to speak out in support of popular movements like “Time’s Up,” but if they hold an unpopular opinion on a different issue, they don’t face pressure to change their minds for the people who depend on them or speak out about it. Constituents do not necessarily expect them to hold a certain opinion. People follow celebrities because they already like something they stand for or the career they have pursued, but celebrities aren’t necessarily in danger of losing their career if they don’t support policies that will improve the lives of certain constituents. Celebrities can and have lost support or garnered criticism from fans if an issue arises within their sphere of influence that they don’t address, like the recent tide of #SheKnew posters and tweets calling out Meryl Streep for allegedly knowing about Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women and remained silent. Celebrities can find themselves hard-pressed to avoid speaking out on issues that threaten to damage their reputation, but their career first and foremost remains entertainment. However, they rise to the level of a “public figure” with more of an implied obligation to be at the forefront of social change once they have already become well-established in their entertainment careers.

The sudden push for Oprah’s candidacy is understandable given that her Golden Globes speech—which was under 10 minutes—seemed to unite more Americans under a single purpose than our current president has been able to do in almost a year in office. She has also been a familiar face for Americans throughout the past 30 years. After her famous talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011, she started a new Oprah Winfrey TV Network (OWN). Every time I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, even if I happen to miss her self-titled O Magazine, which always has her on the cover, I see her face on or in another magazine.  Americans  crave a stable and thoughtful leader right now. Since Oprah has been in the public eye for so long with so few scandals, she is the stable presence that Americans are seeking. 

However, I still believe that a president first and foremost should  have experience in politics. Today’s political climate is not one in which a president has the luxury of taking time to learn the ropes or to bounce back after a few mistakes. We need someone who is seasoned enough at working under pressure to make the right decisions with confidence and humility. We need someone whose experience in public relations is not primarily with fans but with potentially polarizing leaders as well. We need someone who isn’t looking for fans who blindly follow them, but one who expects to earn the loyalty of their citizens through their actions. Americans deserve someone who has a knowledge of economics and law in addition to an ability to deliver a great speech. 

Serving as the president of the United States is not the only way to unite and lead, which is why we do not need Oprah as president for her to be instrumental in engendering the social change we want to see.  I believe movements like “Me Too” are growing regardless of the president because it is the people who bring about social change, and the politicians who listen and enact policy accordingly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 wasn’t what made people of all races equal; it was the gradual social change that the people demanded. This sentiment and action began before the act and persisted long after.

There are plenty of great people who have led within their respective spheres of influence without being formally elected into a position of power. In fact, those who lead without being in office demonstrate that they did not need the approval of, or mandate from, constituents to enact the changes for which they recognized a need. They pursued their ambitions first and welcomed approval afterward, if that approval arose.

Politicians and other public figures fulfill different roles in society, and the American people need all of these parties to bring about the change we seek. Celebrities and public figures help to popularize the change, and are part of the movement as it is happens. Politicians make laws that reflect the social change once they already see it transpiring among their constituents, and while I wish it didn’t seem like citizens have to march and protest to see the changes they seek reflected in policy, this seems to be becoming the norm in America.

My favorite part of Oprah’s speech last Sunday was her statement,  “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” Oprah spoke her truth as she brought audience members and viewers to tears during her Golden Globes speech. And if she does decide to run for president, I believe she would find a strong backing not only among black Americans, but also from loyal followers who watched her TV show for years and still keep up with her. I have faith that Oprah and the other powerful women in the media we have grown to admire will still work toward achieving positive impact—even if they are not doing it from the Oval Office. 

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.


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