My general position on this as a liberal Democrat and someone who wants to see American politics "work" is this: please for the love of God no.
Don't get me wrong, if the Age Of Trump has taught us one thing it's that anyone who secures the nomination of a major political party has a chance of winning a general election, so yes Oprah could win.
Moreover while the Democratic Party seems to have a better grip on its presidential nomination than the Republicans who lost it to Trump due to a combination of media coverage, party dysfunction, "resentment", and bad luck, Oprah still could win the nomination as she shares with Trump many, but not all, of his key strengths as a candidate. She has sky high name recognition and approval, she could spend an almost unlimited amount of her own money. And as political scientist Matt Dickinson pointed out about Trump, the likely resulting media circus with overwhelming coverage of her while her opponents are ignored could be a major asset too.
So she could win the nomination and become the 46th president. But while some people are quite enthusiastic about the idea on the internet that doesn't change the fact that it's still terrible.
Jonathan Bernstein summed up why pretty bluntly on Monday morning:
The truth is the same as always: The presidency is a real job, and a damn hard one. The easily visible parts -- the speeches and the interviews, even the moral leadership -- are a relatively small part of the responsibilities of the office. There's simply no substitute for a good grasp of public policy and government affairs.I think that's exactly right.
There's also no substitute for political skills, which require training and experience, and are simply different from business skills, or cultural mastery, or the ability to perform.
In other words Oprah has many admirable qualities. For example, unlike Trump she is actually a self-made billionaire overseeing a vast business empire. But that's not really that helpful when it comes to running the government. In her business role Oprah deals with staff members she can hire and fire, celebrities eager to court her favor, or vendors and corporations who'd like to strike deals with her. But she can't work that way as president because that's neither the people she'll be dealing with nor how presidents do business.
Cabinet members can't just be hired, they have to be confirmed by the Senate. Likewise bureaucrats are protected by civil service laws and their ability to thwart presidents is the stuff of Washington legend. Federal judges have lifetime appointments and can have been on the bench for decades before a new administration arrives in Washington. And members of Congress are ultimately only beholden to their own constituents and caucuses; they can tell the president to go pound sand if they want to (and frequently have throughout history). I doubt Oprah's TV show or magazines were run that way.
Good presidents are usually able to compensate for this by having lengthy experience of working in, well, politics. That is being members legislative bodies. Or finding the levers of power and influence in bureaucracies. Or learning how to turn a political opponent into an ally or when an ally ultimately is more trouble than they're worth. Oprah has a lot of experience in life but as far as I can tell little in this vein.
Likewise there's not a whole lot of evidence that Oprah knows much, or is interested much, in the finer aspects of public policy. I don't mean this as a putdown, few people do know this stuff, but it's really important for a president to know it to be able to do things like bargain or oversee a White House able to craft politically and practically viable ways for tackling problems.
I mean honestly, what does Oprah (or anyone) really know about foreign trade, tax policy, climate change projections, the power grid, solar energy, driver-less cars, fracking, early childhood education, decommissioning nuclear plants, monetary policy, agriculture, changes in health care cost inflation, changes in workforce participation, mass transit, the 2020 Census, charter schools, the Social Security Trust Fund, student loan debt, waste water treatment, disaster management, an aging federal workforce, court reform, cloud computing, flood prevention, treaties with Native American Tribes, potential earthquakes, deforestation, or any other number of domestic non-military policy issues?
Now Oprah is by all accounts an intelligent and driven woman so she can (hopefully) learn this stuff especially with the help of good advisors, but one thing that should be clear to everyone over the last 12 months is the presidency is "no place for amateurs" as a smart people have long said, and on the job training has some very real downsides. And that's not mentioning her unfortunate tendencies to promote quacks, at least when it comes to health care "policy" as it were, which is something the president has to deal with as well.
Moreover there's not a whole lot of evidence she's that interested in foreign affairs or how to be a good commander in chief, which is fine for a celebrity. Most people and many politicians don't know about these things, but this is also huge parts of the job as well. It's one thing to interview the nicest man on the planet his Holiness the Dahlia Lama, it's another to deal with the Syrian Civil War.
All of which isn't to say I don't understand Oprah's appeal. It would be nice to have a president who isn't a horrible person like Donald Trump and does something to empathize charity, honesty, and empathy in public life. These are good things. But I'm fairly confident that candidate or president Oprah wouldn't be a very good vessel for transmitting these ideal across American society, because she wouldn't be "Oprah" anymore, she'd be another politician. In other words, Oprah right now is a popular celebrity, but once upon a time the Hillary Clinton who had left politics had approval ratings of 65% or so. Things changed once she ran for president, and the those same powerful forces could change Oprah's standing relatively quickly as well.
It's important to note that I could be wrong, I was dead wrong about Trump winning the Republican nomination after all, and Oprah might be able to rise above these challenges and be a good president. But it's a crazy gamble to take in my opinion. A politician who's spent a career seeking the White House has strong institutional incentives to do the things necessary to win the nomination and lead a functional administration (at least in theory) to craft a politics that "works" at least to some degree. With Oprah (or Ric Flair, or Ross Perot, or Waka Flocka Flame) there's no institutional reason to believe this at all, and if Democrats are going to just trust "their gut" or whatever they might as well just select nominees by lot.
The good news is the Democratic Party doesn't suffer from the same level of dysfunction as the GOP. Their party's groups and actors care a lot about creating viable policy and I suspect (hope?) are as skeptical of choosing a celebrity and political amateur as me. Likewise while the foolish progressive push to reduce the number of superdelegates is going forward there still will be some (and hopefully the DNC will just junk the idea of reducing them due to the threat of Oprah) to help coordinate party support and act as an important backstop if necessary. Likewise the Democrats have state-wide proportional representation rules in their delegate allocation which means Oprah would have to win a majority of votes to win a majority of delegates. Not the plurality of votes that gave Trump a majority of delegates due to GOP winner take all and winner take most rules. Add in the fact that it seems highly unlikely Oprah would want to subject herself to the awfulness that is running for president in order get the most demanding and stressful job in the world, and I'm pretty confident we'll be okay.
But sadly I'm a lot less confident than I would have been a week ago that the Democrats would emulate the Republicans and go with a inexperience celebrity candidate in 2020 rather than Harris, Booker, Warren, O'Malley, Kaine, Gillibrand, Patrick or any number of other qualified nominees who'd make fine presidents in my eyes. Especially due to the enthusiasm many progressive figures seem to have towards the whole idea.
And I think this says something damning about where the progressive movement is. The political media has strong economic and normative incentives to support crazy celebrity candidacies for the presidency. Trump may be hated by most journalists but he's been a boon for newspapers. But it's quite unsettling to see many people who purport to care about things like health care reform or climate change policy get interested in someone who'd be poorly equipped to persue change in these areas if they did get in the White House for reasons as yet unexplained.
Thomas Chatterton Williams put it recently in an aptly titled column, "Oprah, Don't Do It":
In a way, the conversation of the left (and the anti-Trump right) around Ms. Winfrey is more troubling than the emotional immaturity and anti-intellectualism pulsing out of the red states that elected Mr. Trump. Those voters have long defined themselves in opposition to the intellectual seriousness Democrats purport to personify...I get that people, especially progressives, are angry. I get that people distrust institutions. I get that people hate politics these days. But while Oprah is the answer to many things, she is not the answer to your political prayers.
The idea that the presidency should become just another prize for celebrities--even the ones with whose politics we imagine we agree--is dangerous in the extreme. If the first year of the Trump administration has made anything clear, it's that experience, knowledge, education, and political wisdom matter tremendously...The presidency is not a reality show, or for that matter, a talk show.