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Robin Gerber Headshot

Oprah's Other Favorite Candidate

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In all the hoopla and hyper-analysis over the Oprah/Obama shows this weekend, there may be another political game being played just under all the noise. Oprah's actions on behalf of Obama have the look of someone thinking about her own run for office.

Some history to consider:

Oprah has never made a political endorsement. Her wildly successful television, magazine and movie enterprises have had little political content -- until recently, that is.

In April, 2006, Oprah took a break from tell-all and took on the minimum wage. She hosted Morgan Spurlock and his fiancee, who talked about the ruinous experiment of trying to live on minimum wage for a month. Oprah's message was clear from her intro: "Someone working full time at minimum wage earns $10,712 a year--that's $8,000 less than what the government defines as poverty." She brought it to the human level, reminding the audience that the people earning minimum wage are the people who help the aged, provide our security and offer emergency medical care.

Oprah as John Edwards? Sort of.

Later in 2006, even before Obama had announced his candidacy, she told Larry King she would support him if he ran. The following May, Oprah went on Larry King again to announce her support for Obama's presidential bid, describing Obama's leadership as "worth me going out on a limb for." She had clearly spent some time getting to know Obama and thinking about her new foray into the political world.

Note to "O": your politics were showing.

The next month, Oprah had Michael Moore on the show, a guest more political than all the candidates combined. She told her audience that Sicko, about the crisis in the U.S. health care system, was the one summer movie everyone had to see. For his part, Moore started a petition to draft Oprah to run for president.

By September, Oprah had hosted a mega-star-watt fundraiser for Obama at her home in Montecito, California, bringing in $3 million dollars. Then we learned that she would take to the campaign trail. Four appearances, at least, in the uber-important early primary locales of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Columbia, South Carolina.

Briefing paper to "O": you crossed the political divide.

Some facts to consider:

Oprah had a famously disastrous childhood marked by sexual abuse, running away from home, getting pregnant at fourteen and the death of the infant she bore. But her life turned around after she went to live with her father in Nashville when she was fourteen. Thanks to Vernon Winfrey she discovered her talents and earned a scholarship to college. Her dad was a barber. He was also a member of the Nashville City Council.

Politics, let's remember, begin at home.

Oprah's been hosting her television show since 1986. More than two decades on that stage. She's conquered her domain big-time, and she's only 53 years old. Could she be thinking of taking on a new challenge? Of going for that mid-life make-over?

Oprah's rise is a function of talent combined with a deliberate, well-thought out strategy. She planned her way to a media empire that made her both one of the most admired women on earth and a billionaire. If she's going to get into politics, it will be a well-planned offensive. On the Obama tour, Oprah gets the chance to try her speaking skills in front of a political audience. When King asked if she would consider politics, she said she already had a platform that was of more value to her because she could touch people's hearts. What if she discovers that politicians can do that, too?

Oprah also told King that she would "never run for office," but was going to become a political activist.

Memo to Oprah: it's a short step from political activist to political candidate.

She's smart enough to know that spending time inside Obama's crack campaign operation and seeing how the press treats her as a political partisan will be an eye-opening leadership experience. Is that a toe I see testing the political waters?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not cynical about Oprah's support for Obama. I'm sure she believes in him as she says she does. But there's no one she believes in more than herself. And she's certainly capable of multiple motivations. Remember, if Obama wins the presidency, there will be a U.S. Senate seat open in Illinois.