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On Trump, Oprah, and the morphing norms around presidential candidates’ prior experience

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump holding a bipartisan meeting with legislators on immigration reform at the White House on Tuesday.

Before Donald Trump, every president had experience in the high levels of government. Specifically. Every pre-Trump president had held one or more of the following jobs: vice president, member of Congress, member of the Cabinet, governor of a state, or general of the U.S. Army. Most presidents had prior experience in more than one of those jobs.

The Constitution, of course, imposes no requirement other than that a president be at least 35 years old and native-born American.

It wasn’t a law; it wasn’t a rule. But, for all of U.S. history before 2016, over 57 quadrennial elections, it was in some vague, collective sense deemed necessary for a president to have some prior experience in the governing game. It was what we call a “norm.”

Norms can be powerful, but they are not enforceable. No one could have taken Donald Trump to court to get him thrown off the ballot on the grounds that he lacked the proper prepresidential job experience.

It turns out he’s really bad at the job (according to me), but I do not claim that’s fundamentally because he never served in the Senate or the Cabinet. He brings a staggering list of deficiencies to the job that are rooted deep in his character, much more than in his résumé. But once a norm is violated, it tends to be exposed as “just a norm” and then to lose its power.

Which brings us to the current Oprah Winfrey moment.

I’m certainly not predicting that Oprah will become president, or run, or be the next Democratic nominee. She claims to have no such plan, although some close to her say it’s a definite possibility that she is considering. I would suggest anything other than a total Shermanesque statement be viewed with skepticism. But I would also recommend waiting and seeing. I am cursed by an inability to know the future, but I am blessed with an awareness of my curse.

Still, over the last two days, the idea of Oprah as a possible presidential contender has become a thinkable thought.

And one reason (there are probably 20 reasons) it has become thinkable is that the old norm of what kind of career experience makes someone thinkable as a presidential candidate have been shattered by the results the last election.

Oprah is probably very smart, nice, generous. She is very rich (and, unlike the current incumbent, she wasn’t born that way, which should help as a political matter).

Oprah Winfrey
Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC
Oprah Winfrey

Now, the fact that Oprah is good on TV is a huge plus. For those young enough not to remember this, before the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, no one understood how much the ability to look good and come across well on the tube mattered. Now it may matter more than anything in the electability portion of the program.

And it’s not just important to look good and sound good on TV, but to come across as likable. “Likable” may have replaced “qualified” as the single most important attribute. I was not a regular viewer of Oprah’s TV show, but I gather that coming across as likable was a very big part of it. I say this without evidence but with little fear of contradiction: If Hillary Clinton had the knack of TV likability, and that other omnipotent quality – relatability — she would be president right now.

Here, a New York Times television writer analyzes how Oprah’s strengths apply to politics.

I make no assumptions about 2020. I don’t assume Trump will be a candidate for re-election. I don’t assume Oprah will run. I do assume that, if she does, it will be a big deal and, at the very least, it will be hard for Republicans to run her down as nothing but a TV personality.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/10/2018 - 10:00 am.

    “… it will be hard for Republicans to run her down as nothing but a TV personality.”

    I doubt that would even come up. There’s so much more…

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/10/2018 - 12:09 pm.

      I looked at your reference: she basically says that racism persists in the older white demographic and as that demographic dies out (as it will naturally do), the weight of that embedded belief will lighten.

      Hmm, sounds like a political truth and not a declaration of war on whitey.

      But I can understand why you need it to be a scary quote.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/10/2018 - 12:18 pm.

      I Have Every Confidence

      That the same people who, in 2004, made a draft dodger look patriotic and a patriot look cowardly can use Ms. Winfrey’s TV experience against her.

      This message paid for by the Oprah Winfrey Network Veterans For Truth.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2018 - 01:01 pm.

      A project of the David Horowitz Freedom Center

      ‘Nuff said.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/10/2018 - 10:08 am.

    It may be difficult

    …but that won’t keep Republicans from trying to run her down as merely a TV presence. It’s politics, after all, and any criticism of the opponent’s character, occupation, behavioral quirks, appearance, wardrobe, etc. is generally fair game in those kinds of contests. And, historically, women who want to serve in public have huge double-standard and sexist issues to overcome, no matter what their qualifications or personalities might bring to the table.

    Personally, I liked the old norm – or something closer to it – better. The fact that Oprah is a genuine TV presence, and knows how to use the media, doesn’t (at least in my own, aged, white male mind) automatically make her either a good candidate for the presidency or qualified for the job. For what little it’s worth, my personal preference for presidential candidates is for someone with at least a modicum of knowledge about public policy issues in a variety of areas. Oprah, or any other widely-known TV personality, may know a bit about a few areas, simply by being a reasonably alert citizen, but I’d prefer experience that’s a little more “wonky” in terms of public policy, which is why the “norm” of prior governmental experience, though not necessarily at the national level, often resonates, at least in this household.

    But that “norm” may not apply any more — my predictions about the future are at least as terrible as any Eric has made — and if it comes down to “likability” or TV “presence,” then I’ll just have to shift my sights like everyone else and decide what new criteria I want to use to evaluate candidates for office.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2018 - 10:27 am.

      The good news

      is that she is competent and is capable of learning on the job.
      I suspect that she knows how to hire knowledgeable aides and use their expertise.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2018 - 12:09 pm.


        She is very smart, but she has also given voice to some less than knowledgeable voices. I’m not sure I would want to see the aides someone who gave platforms Dr. Oz and Jenny McCarthy would pick.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2018 - 01:40 pm.

          She was in the entertainment business then

          I would credit her with (unlike some people I won’t name) knowing the difference between entertainment and government, and hire the best people for the job she wanted them to do.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/10/2018 - 10:19 am.

    The real problem is that our “heroes” are dominated by the entertainment industry–they are the ones that are in front of us, day after day. A relentless media onslaught can move the Kardashians to being famous for being famous and throws up media-darlings for political speculation over and over. There’s a lot of media with a lot of time to fill–mostly with speculation and what-ifs. Who easier and better to speculate than upon the possible futures of the already-famous.

    With respect to Oprah, she undoubtedly has a greater grasp of many issues than the current President and I believe she has the ability to do the homework associated with new issues. She obviously has lots of gaps related to many of the governmental function, but again–who is that person who has all knowledge. It all comes down to temperament.,

    In the end, the President is the definition of an executive role. The prior knowledge of everything is not necessary, but the ability to hear all sides and make a reasoned decision based on the best available information is key, along with the ability to explain decisions and get buy-in from interested parties. The ability to recognize obstacles and the need to change policies in light of those obstacles is key.

    Perhaps the best thing to come from the Trump administration after the Obama administration is the recognition that there is a temperament factor for the office of the President.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/10/2018 - 10:22 am.


    I don’t know that political experience matters a lot. Recent presidents besides Trump haven’t been vastly experienced in politics. The last really political president we have had is Bill Clinton, and the political side of Bill wasn’t exactly the most appealing of his features. The days when presidents moved up some hierarchy that gave them “experience” and “qualification” were always more myth than reality and may be pretty much over.

    FDR was the governor of New York when he was elected president, but his experience in elected office before that was a couple of years in the New York senate.

    Abraham Lincoln’s experience in Washington prior to election as president was a single term as a representative in Congress.

    JFK had been a senator for 12 years when elected to the presidency, but it’s pretty widely known he didn’t show up for work much.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 01/10/2018 - 09:02 pm.

      I think it does matter

      Being president is a political job and I think political experience – however and wherever obtained – is key to being effective. It’s not sufficient, but it is necessary.

      You may not like doctors, but you don’t hire a plumber (no matter how good) to operate on your heart.

  5. Submitted by jim hughes on 01/10/2018 - 07:23 pm.

    it’s broken

    If people want to just vote for their favorite celebrities, it’s over – all we can do is try to marginalize the Presidency and limit its power. The Electoral College has already been shown to be a complete failure in its original mission, which was preventing unqualified or corrupt people from gaining the office.

    The news media are making record profits from the situation, with coverage of sports, entertainment and politics becoming stylistically indistinguishable.

    In the future, important issues will increasingly be left to state and local governments. Basically, the nation state goes into decline.

  6. Submitted by Tim Kaiser on 01/10/2018 - 11:00 am.


    I like Oprah as a TV personality and occasional booster for various and important causes- her speech the other night was great. BUT, she did create Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, which should disqualify her from being chief exec. of the U.S. outright.

  7. Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/10/2018 - 11:50 am.

    I fear that . . .

    We are not in Kansas anymore. This is not how U. S. Presidents were elected prior to Donald Trump – they needed experience in government or at least, the military as this article states. Now anything goes. I like Oprah . . . A LOT . . . but something has gotten lost along the way. And yes, we worship celebrities TOO MUCH. We live in a “selfie” kind of world now, and I fear we will all pay for it in the long run.

  8. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/10/2018 - 12:19 pm.

    The Real Qualification Is:

    Do you think you’d like to have a beer with her?

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/10/2018 - 12:39 pm.


    I don’t view an Oprah candidacy with a lot of enthusiasm, but who do we have who is better?. Decades of electoral defeats have resulted in a lost generation of potential presidential candidates. We just don’t have anyone anywhere near the stature of Oprah in 2020.

  10. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/10/2018 - 05:01 pm.

    I suggest we skip this whole electoral nonsense…

    …and simply let the Nielsen ratings determine our next President.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/11/2018 - 09:38 am.


      Might be something for outsourcing the task of holding an election to the pros.
      Obviously not something that the Founders would have considered.

  11. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/10/2018 - 08:39 pm.

    Now that “The Speech” is done

    I see that Rep. Pelosi and other democrats are going to bring numerous victims of sexual assault to the State of the Union speech (as is their prerogative). Any chance that any of former Senator Al Franken’s victims will be invited?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/11/2018 - 11:31 am.

      No, Franken’s gone, Trump isn’t.

      I recall Bill Clinton-era characters being brought to the 2016 debate.

      Perhaps there should also be Trump-stiffed contractors, bamboozled Trump U students and a few people in Putin, Xi and Kim masks.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/12/2018 - 12:28 pm.


      Or bad manners.
      I doubt if any of the women who accused Franken of inappropriate behavior would regard themselves as been assaulted. There is no indication that he used either personal power or physical force.
      He resigned because he saw no point in wasting his time defending himself in a Republican kangaroo court and knew that he would not be able to continue his forceful fight against really inappropriate acts.
      That is of course what the Republicans wanted in the first place (the main accuser was active in the Republican party).

  12. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 01/10/2018 - 10:07 pm.

    Zero enthusiasm

    I have no desire to vote for an inexperienced, washed up television personality from either party. I want candidates who are knowledgeable, engaged, and cool-headed. Candidates who are not wholly dependent on their aides to explain an issue. Candidates of real experience and substance. I am beginning to doubt I’ll ever see another one, and I’m mildly nauseated by the sight of Democrats oohing and aahing over Oprah Winfrey, or even seriously considering her.

    Would I vote for Oprah over Trump? Well, yes. At least she seems to want to do some good in the world. But I think the best thing she could do is use her star power to support a qualified candidate.

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/11/2018 - 07:29 am.

    the pole

    When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister of England, he famously observed that he had reached the top of the greasy pole. From the perspective of the first decades of the 21st century in America, what is notable is not so much that it was greasy, but rather that there was a pole; a relatively clear if difficult to follow pathway to political success. American politics is different, and pretty much always has been if you think about it. British prime ministers, without exception, are life long politicians. They started off in political activism at university, usually Oxford or Cambridge, and they worked their way up in their party. None of them have been outsiders to the political class.
    In America, for example, we have a habit of revering, perhaps excessively, military officers. A number of generals have been elected president. Even today, Donald Trump looks to the military to manage his political affairs, something hardly anyone finds exception to. Notice how different that is from British history. Despite all their wars, despite the reverence with which their military is held, not British military leader has led the country since Wellington in the early 19th century.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/11/2018 - 11:37 am.

      Climbing the Pole

      In most functioning democracies, it is understood that considerable political or governmental experience is a prerequisite to leading the government.

      “A number of generals have been elected president.” Only three Presidents–Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower–had only military experience. Their records are quite the mixed bag. Grant presided over an incredibly corrupt administration, Eisenhower ranks as a “nearly great” President, and the charitable take on Taylor is that he wasn’t in office long enough to make an informed judgment about his presidency.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/11/2018 - 12:37 pm.


        That experience is necessary is an assumption other countries make but in the United States not so much. President Bush had been governor of Texas for a while, but that’s mostly a part time job. President Obama had been in the senate briefly, but spent most of his time there running for president. These days, the senate as a functioning legislative body barely exists anymore anyway.

        These days we mostly choose neophytes for public office. Al Franken had never held elected office before entering the senate. His replacement, Tina Smith, his successor, ever run for public office on her own. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing, I don’t know, but the fact is as a practical matter political experience isn’t valued in our culture, and that is a simple and basic fact those of us who are involved in politics must recognize.

        And really, on the Democratic side, do we think that the Kristin Gillibrands of this world, plucked mostly from obscurity, after a few years in the fever swamps of Washington have cultivated talents that make them obviously superior to someone like Oprah Winfrey? I just don’t see it.

  14. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/11/2018 - 08:16 am.

    The antidote…

    Trump was the antidote to the status quo: “I’m fed up, let’s give radical change a shot”. 60% Plus now see that as a bad decision and will likely want to reverse course. And the most comfortable character on the other end of that spectrum is good old Joe from Scranton.

    Mark it down: President Biden in 2020….

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/11/2018 - 03:36 pm.

    Status quo

    The status quo these days is to elect outsider candidates who will shake up the status quo. We have become so fixated with out of the box thinkers that no one is left who can figure out to make their way inside the box. Radicalism is the new complacency.

  16. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/12/2018 - 12:19 pm.

    Nice discussion

    Under similar circumstances perhaps we should get Sylvester Stallone, & Arnold Schwarzenegger, to run our military, they have lots of “military” movie screen experience. Per HF and PB’s comments: We seem to only want the best most experienced in doctors, lawyers, CEO’s etc, but when it comes to running our country, any old schmoe will do if they have a smiley face and tell us stuff we want to hear! No need to know how things really work, just get a political manipulation machine to pump out the “fake news” and 1/2 truths, as noted in an earlier comment, play to peoples weakness and fears; you can make patriots – traitors and draft dodgers-war heroes!

  17. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/13/2018 - 08:11 am.

    The Terminator

    It’s my pet theory that “The Terminator” is a great metaphor for what we want as a candidate. Dedicated, purposeful. incorruptible, capable, and completely amoral. It got Arnold elected governor of California twice, and it’s what many people see in Donald Trump. Rules? The terminator doesn’t need now stinking rules; he just sweeps them away in order to do what needs to be done.

    In movie terms, the anti Terminator is Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”, constantly moralizing, irrelevantly legalizing, and at the end of the movie he gets his head chopped off almost as an afterthought, while Henry VIII does and gets exactly what he wants.

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