Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What Oprah Can’t and Shouldn’t Do For Obama
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Oprah can’t help Barack Obama nail Hillary Clinton in Iowa, New Hampshire, or even South Carolina. The throng of Oprah groupies that pitched camp in front of the Obama campaign headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina to get free tickets to her and Obama’s appearance at the Colonial Center in that city were there to ogle, and if they are lucky, touch the garments of America’s favorite TV earth mother at the auditorium.

But after the ogling and touching Oprah, it doesn’t mean they’ll vote for Obama. A Pew Research Center poll after a big Oprah fundraising bash in September found that by a crushing margin respondents said that Oprah’s tout of Obama won’t sway them the least bit. And it shouldn’t, at least not because, Oprah says so. Despite all the talk about Oprah being a transcendental force that supersedes mere celebrity mortals she’s still just that, a celebrity. The thousands that clawed for tickets to rub shoulders with her at her Obama pep rally in Columbia, South Carolina were there precisely because of her star power and the insatiable celebrity mania that grips far to many star struck Americans.

Yet, celebrities fail miserably every time to do much for their political picks. Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen, and in reverse, George Clooney are big money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.

As for Clooney, he publicly declared that he hoped that his non-endorsement of Kerry probably helped him at the polls. It didn't. Though Clooney now backs Obama he’s still very mindful of the potential liability of celebrity hood and has publicly said that he thinks campaigning for a candidate hurts a candidate. Clooney recognized a political truism that's etched in stone. That's that a celebrity pump of a presidential candidate does little to boost the candidate.

The one group that Obama hopes is the rare exception to the rule is black women. He banks heavily that Oprah can help him smash through the Hillary fest that many black women have with Clinton. In South Carolina, black voters make up nearly half of the Democratic voters, a greater proportion than any other state, and black women make up a significant proportion of that vote. Though most adore Oprah and are well aware of her long standing backing of Obama, that hasn't shaken their support of Clinton the least bit. Nearly three times more black women say they'll back Hillary over him, and that’s especially true among lower income, working class black women. She is a woman, mother, and most importantly is regarded by many black women as a strong advocate for health care and women's interests.

Selling Obama is not like selling one of Oprah’s handpicked authors that the mere mention of on her show will send their book hurtling to the top of the charts. Voters make their decisions about politicians on a combination of factors, party affiliation, their stance on the issues, their political beliefs, and their experience at getting the job done. Few will rely on Oprah’s word that Obama is the best to handle global warming, tax policy, the Iraq war, terrorism, job creation and inflation, failing public schools, criminal justice issues and judicial appointments.

A candidate, and only the candidate, has to sell his or herself that they have a sound grasp of the issues, and can forcefully and clearly articulate them, and most importantly, are the most experienced. That’s the glaring Achilles Heel for Obama. In every poll, even the most rabid Clinton loathers, rank Hillary at the top of the pile in experience in dealing with foreign and domestic issues. Voters got burned badly with Bush. His gross inexperience in statecraft before grabbing the White House cost Americans dearly in eight years of his disastrous bumbles and fumbles on everything from the Iraq war to domestic policy. Many voters won’t make that mistake again.

That's not to say that endorsements don't help a candidate. But they have to be the right endorsements. The right ones come from seasoned politicians and respected industry, labor, or public interest groups that have the trust and confidence of voters, and a solid track record in fighting for legislation and public policy change. That’s also not to say that Oprah’s endorsement will hurt Obama. The hype, promotion, and allure of Oprah have some value in bumping even higher Obama’s media visibility.

The O and O show has caused the tongues to wag, eyebrows to rise and they will draw legions to their campaign stops. But it won’t be the knock out wallop Obama counts on to floor Hillary. Celebrities simply don’t and shouldn’t pack that kind of political punch. And neither does Oprah.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)