A modest proposal for bringing back policy.
In the excitement over a potential Oprah Winfrey presidency, there is an obvious eye-rolling response: We already elected a celebrity with no political experience to the White House, and look how well that’s working out.
And yet there is a reason many are drawn to Oprah’s candidacy — and it’s a primary reason Donald Trump succeeded. In an era of nonstop politics-as-entertainment media, there’s something appealing about a celebrity candidate known for being an inspirational problem solver on television, who makes us feel like great things are possible. Like a president should.
Each in their own ways, and for very different audiences, both Trump and Winfrey play variations on what we think we want in a president — somebody who will tell us a great story, and who exudes authoritative decisiveness.
The problem here is that the actual job of being president (understanding complex policy trade-offs) is very different from the public role of playing president (reveling in broad, inspirational generalizations).
Being president versus playing president
The old cliché was that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. The cliché still holds. But the gap between the two skills has never been wider. Campaigning is more demanding than ever; governing is more complicated than ever. It’s now almost impossible for any single individual to be able to do both.
Trump excelled as a candidate not because of his grasp of policy details, but because of how he made voters feel, what he promised emotionally. The gauzy nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” was the perfect vessel for that vague promise. Details were not his thing. He was the pitchman. This set him apart from the more serious candidates in the Republican primary, who now and then got tripped up on actual policies.
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