Politics & Policy

Obama’s Oprah Problem

Like viewers, voters want honesty.

She didn’t see it coming. One day, Oprah Winfrey turned around, and her nationally syndicated show was sliding in the ratings, and her audience was fleeing en masse. And it happened soon after a day she thought was one of the best in her life.

Isn’t that how all the giants fall? When they least expect it?

It was the day Oprah announced she was backing the African-American candidate, then-senator Barack Obama, over the highly qualified and experienced woman candidate, then-senator Hillary Clinton.

It was the first time that Oprah put her brand on a political candidate. And her audience was expecting a very different choice.

Oprah appeared on Larry King Live in May 2007, flush with pride, and was asked the questions lots of women in her audience had on their minds.

“Is there a side of you, the woman side, that would lead toward a Hillary?” King inquired.

“Well, I have great respect for Hillary Clinton,” Oprah said. “I think I’ve said this before, and it’s true: Because I am for Barack does not mean I am against Hillary or anybody else.”

So much for the sisterhood!

And so much for that Oprah honesty that her mostly female — and mostly white — audience had come to expect all of those years.

Oprah had chosen the less-qualified, less-experienced black man over the more-qualified, more-experienced white woman. It didn’t take long for Oprah to feel the backlash.

Hell hath no fury like millions of women scorned.

Oprah’s message board was soon swarmed with angry postings. Even the major media outlets couldn’t ignore the firestorm Oprah had ignited by choosing one part of her identity over another. One ABC News headline said it most plainly: “Women Angry Over Oprah-Obama Campaign.”

Here is how that story began:

The queen of day time talk is facing heat from her largely female fans who have traditionally agreed with just about anything she has done — from the books she reads to the weight loss plans she tries. But Oprah’s endorsement of Obama is different from the typical seals of approval the host offers on her show, and as early as November 2007 commenters on her site’s message boards began unleashing criticism of her endorsement for the black candidate — Obama — rather than the female one — Hillary Clinton.

How did Oprah and her team not see this coming? Did they consider even for a moment all the trust she’d built up with all those American women over all those years? And how this decision might play?

The ABC News piece then printed a few of the thousands — no, tens of thousands — of posts by irate former Oprah fans. Here is one from a woman who identified herself as Austaz68 in a message thread titled “Oprah is a Traitor!!!”

I cannot believe that women all over this country are not up in arms over Oprah’s backing of Obama. For the first time in history we actually have a shot at putting a woman in the white house and Oprah backs the black MAN. She’s choosing her race over her gender — hypocrisy at it’s finest!! Oprah — you should be ashamed of yourself!!!!!

Why didn’t Team Oprah anticipate the avalanche of antipathy? I suspect they missed it not because they were incompetent but because they all thought — and Oprah herself thought — she was bulletproof.

That’s when we always get in trouble.

There were many more open threads on Oprah’s message board, like this one started by a woman who identified herself as wendykwrit:

You know, for so long I’ve felt a connection to Oprah and all that she’s done not only for women but the world in general. She was such an idol to me and I truly loved all that she stood for. Since she threw her support behind Barack Obama I felt like she let me down……. I feel like I lost a friend who I thought identified with me and now I realize she’s something she’s not, and I refuse to even watch the show anymore.

And there you had it. A healthy chunk of her audience refused to watch her show because Oprah presented herself as something she was not.

Many people actually think Oprah retired, but she was actually about to be retired — by her audience. By her own miscalculations and by her own vanity.

This wasn’t her first slipup. Long before her Obama miscalculation, Oprah had begun to forget about the very real values that united her and her audience.

Several years before, she decided to start heavily promoting the work of New Age gurus Eckhart Tolle and Marianne Williamson.

They’re perfectly nice people, with a perfectly reasonable worldview that works for them and their adherents. But why, many in her audience wondered, was Oprah so aggressively pushing this New Age philosophy when she was a self-proclaimed Christian? Was she having doubts about her Christian beliefs?

What her audience was hoping for was some candor. They never got it.

Oprah had always presented herself as a Christian, and New Age spiritualism doesn’t square with a biblical worldview. Many women in her audience were confused about who the real Oprah really was.

Was she that Christian girl from Mississippi? Or a New Age billionaire who’d evolved beyond Jesus?

Had all that money changed her? Or had the whole Christian thing been an act? Inquiring minds wanted to know, but Oprah never came clean.

She thought she could have it both ways, that she could call herself a Christian and simultaneously promote New Age spiritualism like Tolle’s.

But even media moguls can’t have it all. Even if they have a hit show, a magazine, a production company, and a line of credit to match a small country’s.

The moral universe of her show, which was built on trust and intimacy, started to unravel right then and there. Her ratings were beginning to erode, and Oprah and her team didn’t even know why.

Her fans would have had no problem if she had talked about her loss of faith in Christ, if that was what was really happening in her life. I don’t know a Christian who hasn’t had existential doubts. Heck, even Mother Theresa had them!

And non-Christians wouldn’t have cared.

The problem is, Oprah didn’t want to offend her mostly Christian audience and thought she was smart enough to circle a square that couldn’t be circled.

She thought she was big enough, smart enough, and rich enough to be all things to all people. She thought her audience was either too in love with her to care — or too stupid to notice.

When you get as big as Oprah, you start to think you’re too big to fail.

And when you are loved by the media the way Oprah was loved, it only makes it easier to believe you can do no wrong, and harder to hear the sound of the audience tuning out.

Which brings me to Barack Obama, because in many ways his bid for reelection is ripe for an erosion of support for similar reasons.

Two recent examples:

When Trayvon Martin was shot, President Obama quickly weighed in, saying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then he said something that many Americans just didn’t understand:

“My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The fact is, President Obama has two daughters. And yet he decided to talk about a son he did not have, in the course of weighing in on a controversial, unsolved criminal case that was beaming on the national airwaves. He did that instead of waiting a few months to talk about another national case beaming into America’s homes, one involving the kidnapping of two real-life little girls from their home in Tennessee, and the gruesome murder of two relatives.

Where was the president’s message to that family?

Our first black president chose to inject himself into the Trayvon Martin story, just as he had done when Professor “Skip” Gates of Harvard was arrested by a white officer back in July 2009.

He was a bit more careful this time, but still, we wondered, why was he butting in at all? And conjuring up an imaginary son to make his point?

And then came Obama’s words on ABC News about gay marriage.

“Same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president told Robin Roberts of ABC News.

Is there anyone in America who didn’t really believe Obama supported gay marriage before this non-announcement? Even more interesting, this time he brought up his real-life children and introduced them into his story. “Malia and Sasha,” he said, “it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated different. It doesn’t make sense to them, and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”

Strange. I thought it was parents who instructed kids on such complicated matters.

Within minutes of Obama’s ABC interview, he was being heralded by media types and gay activists for his courage.

Why did Obama do it? And how can a man who calls himself a Christian circle the square on gay marriage? Some do, but he never explained.

All week long, Obama basked in the afterglow of his announcement, an adoring media and an adoring Hollywood basking with him.

But the American people were not quite ready to join in that exercise. Indeed, the people of North Carolina, a swing state, said no to gay marriage last week, and said no by a stunningly large margin: 61 to 39 percent.

I wonder how Obama’s words will play there in November.

Obama says he is a Christian and then takes positions on matters such as gay marriage and abortion that most Christians can’t reconcile with their faith. And that confuses Christians and non-Christians alike.

He says he wants to bring Americans together, and then uses the rhetoric of class and gender warfare to separate us.

He says he favors policies that favor job creation, but doesn’t seem interested in what real-life job creators have to say.

He says he’s going to close Guantanamo Bay, and then keeps it open.

He promises college students hope and change, but all they can see down the road is unemployment and debt.

It turns out that the Obama so many Americans thought they knew when he was running for the White House isn’t squaring with the man who’s occupying it. And that could be his biggest problem. One for which there is no antidote.

Oddly enough, as Oprah was beginning to lose her connection to her audience, Ellen DeGeneres was building a rapport with hers. Americans supported the openly gay TV personality because she had the guts to declare who she was and let the chips fall where they might. America fell in love with her show, and she has some of the highest ratings in daytime.

Which only proves that what Americans hate the most is a phony. A fugazee.

Many Democrats in 1980 and 1984 voted for Ronald Reagan not because they agreed with everything he said but because they trusted him as a leader and knew he said what he meant. And meant what he said. He didn’t equivocate or try to gauge the temperature of the room and modulate his opinions accordingly. He had no authenticity problems.

President Obama is riding high. And I suspect with all of the media help he’s getting, many around him think the election is in the bag, especially after the recent circus that masqueraded as a primary in the GOP.

But he should study Oprah’s rapid decline.

And come his biggest ratings day — Election Day — he shouldn’t be too surprised to discover a serious enthusiasm erosion.

He shouldn’t be too surprised if his audience — like Oprah’s — sends him into early retirement.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss.

Lee HabeebLee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.


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