Dec 092007
Authors: Maria Myotte

Anchors and media professionals are barking over what will come of Oprah Winfrey’s recent endorsement of presidential candidate Barack Obama.

This is Oprah’s first time endorsement of a potential presidential candidate.

Other celebrities have endorsed candidates — Ben Affleck likes Obama, Barbara Streisand is for Hillary, Chuck Norris wants Huckabee — but Oprah’s magnitude of influence towers over her celebrity colleagues. People change the way they think because of Oprah.

A recent New York Times article broke it down like this: If Oprah likes Barack and the audience likes Oprah, then the audience will also like Barack.

See, unlike other celebrities, Oprah’s power of suggestion also translates into action. Just look at her book club. When she chose Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it dominated the top of the New York Times list of paperback best sellers for seven weeks. And when she chose Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it blasted to the top of best-seller list as well — a rare feat for a classic book.

Oprah’s endorsement comes at a crucial moment in the campaign game. Obama is starting to catch up with Hillary.

Although Obama leads in some polls in Iowa, he’s still behind in two other crucial states — South Carolina and New Hampshire.

In order to step up, he has to edge his way into the demographic that has a natural alliance with Clinton: women.

Oprah’s endorsement does just this.

According to Nielsen Media Research, Oprah has a daytime audience of 8.6 million viewers, 75 percent of which are women.

It’s not outlandish to assume that a good chunk of Oprah’s women viewers will entertain her endorsement, nudging undecided voters towards a vote for Obama.

The New York Times interviewed a young female student who said she’s now “leaning more towards Obama, and that’s because of both Oprah’s support and what I’ve seen of him.”

But it’s not all cake and rainbows for Obama.

Oprah’s endorsement may create more votes for Obama, but those votes are probably not the product of critical engagement with Obama’s platform and political history.

Oprah’s presence threatens to take over Obama’s campaign, turning a vote for

Obama into a vote for Oprah.

Celebrity-sponsored politicians are symptomatic of the troubled state of civic engagement in the US. Image and advertising strategies have infiltrated the democratic process.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University said Obama’s campaign is too light on pushing political issues.

“[Obama] radiat[es] a certain cool that would be very attractive to college

students and young people. But he has a cerebral approach that leaves some voters wanting more. While Clinton is running from the center and Edwards is running from the left, Obama is running from above,” he said.

Basically, Obama is selling himself short.

Instead of replacing the haze of his celebrity with clear policy positions, his campaign is riding on his 15 minutes. This campaign position is problematic considering that Obama’s camp champions “change.

Even though he launches a powerful challenge against his competitors, he doesn’t open space for fresh relationships with potential voters.

Most Americans are politically active insofar that they follow the political aspirations of their Hollywood heroes. Voters, then, are twice removed from the origin of political developments.

The Oprah-Obama alliance is overshadowing a more important story. American politics favors passive citizens. Instead of confronting the increasingly thinning civic engagement of U.S. citizens, politicians legitimate the passive/spectator roles of voters by bringing in celebrities to do the job they can’t seem to do.

Sure, celebrity endorsements may be a smart political move in the short term.

But the growing alliance between Hollywood and politics is definitely problematic for democracy’s life expectancy.

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