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Too Soon? Divining Democrats With the ‘It’ Factor for 2020

Democrats are gravitating toward ‘star’ personalities to eclipse the president, but his ego already blocks out the sun

Neither the racist tropes of being “angry” nor her elite Ivy League credentials defined Michelle Obama. No wonder Democrats are dreaming of her name on the ticket, right next to Oprah Winfrey’s, Curtis writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Neither the racist tropes of being “angry” nor her elite Ivy League credentials defined Michelle Obama. No wonder Democrats are dreaming of her name on the ticket, right next to Oprah Winfrey’s, Curtis writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

OPINION — A die-hard Democrat said to me at the gym, “Somebody has to MAKE Michelle Obama run for president.” This was after Obama’s appearance in a television interview, in which she reminded the world what it’s been missing.

Sorry to let that educated, suburban woman in workout clothes down, but in the former first lady’s own words, she has no wish to be president. Besides, she has already done her time under the microscope, making history along with her husband. It’s someone else’s turn now.

But which someone?

You can see why that hope (and change) is alive, though. After the surprising — for Democrats and quite a few Republicans — result in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, Democrats are looking for a sure thing, or as close to it as possible.

Is the speculation too soon, perhaps, after a midterm that saw Democrats regain House control? And is such speculation useless when someone unexpected might yet rise to the top of the field? Nevertheless, nervous party members who have learned not to take anything for granted are already trying to beat the odds and figure out a foolproof candidate. Why not turn to the Obama whose popularity never flagged?

It seems that everyone is vying for the post, and many names have been promoted, often by the would-be contenders themselves, even as some of last week’s races have yet to be called. Some names are familiar, some not; some are unexpected and others dark horses.

Should it be Beto O’Rourke, the newcomer who couldn’t quite turn Texas blue, or Kamala Harris, the California senator known for her incisive questions as a member of the Judiciary Committee? Will Sen. Sherrod Brown’s comfortable margin in an Ohio that increasingly tilts red give him instant credibility, or will the party turn to former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?

When I spoke with Julian Castro at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, he was optimistic about a Hispanic politician on the ticket one day, but coyly said it probably wouldn’t be him. Has he changed his mind? Forgive me, Sen. Cory Booker, Michael Avenatti, Michael Bloomberg and the rest I missed, but my column is only so long.

Known unknowns

Hillary Clinton gets her own paragraph, since she floats in and out of the spotlight. But for all her professional and personal accomplishments and her years of public service, she was not a natural fit as presidential candidate.

In 2008, when she lost her primary bid to a first-term African-American senator with the name Barack Obama, that might have been a hint. And in 2016, time and circumstances had curdled what had once been considered accomplishments of the Bill Clinton years, the maximum-minimum sentencing laws that contributed to a mass incarceration crisis, and the sexual misconduct marked by a power imbalance that #MeToo has highlighted. Bill Clinton’s “it” factor became an “ick” factor that was more albatross than electoral boost in her last campaign.

That’s a big problem with trying to craft a perfect ticket without knowing what cultural and criminal events will turn up in the long years between now and 2020 — things that tarnish the front-runner. (Isn’t there a new film by that name that purports to show what happened to onetime golden boy Gary Hart?)

However, what remains as the list grows longer are the same two high-profile personalities garnering swoons as Democrats yearn for a nontraditional surprise in their wish to beat an unconventional president, especially when both bring a warmth that seems to be missing from the Trump toolbox.

Dream team ticket?

There is that other Obama, whose new book, “Becoming,” on sale this week, is set to be one of the year’s biggest, with sold-out tour dates reintroducing her to the public. Two years have only burnished her reputation and appeal — no shade meant to the current first lady, Melania Trump, who has chosen a different style and garners more publicity for wardrobe choices (and recently, power struggles with the West Wing staff).

Neither the racist tropes of being “angry” nor the elite Ivy League credentials of Princeton and Harvard Law defined Michelle Obama. She was down-to-earth and relatable, with her White House garden and good-humored and insightful talk-show appearances.

Black women, the party’s most loyal base, accepted Barack Obama, in part, because of her conviction. And I was always struck by the reaction a mention of her elicited, even from Republicans and the working-class white women and men the Democratic Party was thought to have sidelined. (She had the far more numerous black and brown working-class men and women at “hello.”) Michelle Obama was someone, most everyone told me, they could imagine as a friend, a shopping or movie companion.

The excerpts I’ve read from “Becoming” won’t do anything to shake their judgment. That in her book Michelle Obama has admitted insecurities, tensions in her marriage and struggles while trying to start a family only makes her more like a “regular” person, though her life has been far from normal, especially as an integral part of the pioneering African-American family in the White House. She suffered slings and arrows she deflected with grace.

The latching on of Democrats to “star” personalities to eclipse the president, whose ego blocks out the sun, has also kept the “Oprah Winfrey for president” bandwagon alive, with no encouragement by the self-made (unlike Trump) billionaire herself. Neither she nor anyone else can quite imagine Winfrey trudging through New Hampshire and Iowa during primary season, but as long as she drops a Golden Globes speech or leads a political rally like her pitch-perfect pitch for Stacey Abrams in Georgia, expect the nudging to continue.

After his party lost big in the 2010 midterms, President Obama went on to win a second term in 2012 because the country had confidence in his basic decency and integrity, so the GOP’s midterm losses that keep mounting are no guarantee Democrats would have an easy path to the White House.

Trump’s appeal was intentionally the opposite of his predecessor’s, but he, too, captured the imagination and confidence of enough voters where it counted to triumph.

No matter the folly of trying to predict what the winning formula will be in 2020, expect speculation and fantasizing before the primaries bring Democrats back to reality. A Michelle-Oprah ticket? Why? Why not?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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