The groundswell over Oprah Winfrey’s apparent interest in the Presidency has many people puzzled. One would think that the chaos resulting from recently electing a businessman and reality TV star to the U.S.’ highest office would forever close that electoral option. The last business executive president, Herbert Hoover, is rated among the worst due to his inability to cope with the Great Depression of the Thirties, and Donald J. Trump appears headed toward that oblivion.
As an American living in Toronto, I find the Oprah candidacy very encouraging as it would move the U.S. political system closer to the Canadian model. After much time here, I find the Canadian system particularly successful. With the Queen as Canada’s official head of state and the Governor General handling ceremonial duties, Justin Trudeau is free to operate the government and avoid cutting ribbons for the most part. He does that kind of thing as he chooses. It mitigates against amateurs heading the government, and requires a PM to be elected by his own party as its leader and to be able to answer questions in public during Question Period. Can you imagine a Trump or George W. Bush undergoing that kind of grilling? Of course not.
The new Governor General, Julie Payette, polylingual computer science engineer and former astronaut, is a highly inspirational figure. Her predecessors have been more of the same: David Johnston, Michäelle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson. Payette is a kind of Canadian Oprah without the TV show.
Support for Oprah and Trump’s elevation point up an essential U.S. Constitutional weakness: the Presidency combines the functions of a head of state and of government and the legislature is distinct. One can’t be in both branches of government, unlike this system where a Minister must also be an MP or MPP. Most democratic countries, perhaps except France, have separated head of state and government. Italy and Israel, for example, have appointed presidents and elected Prime Ministers and Canada has of course Parliament and a Monarchy. Japan has a legislature called the Diet and an Emperor.
Compared to the dysfunctional U.S., the Canadian system works very well. It parcels out the duties logically and is designed to get things done, especially with a majority government. World War I-era U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, an ex-political science professor and Princeton University president, tried to push his administration in that direction. Wilson’s first political work, Congressional Government (1885), advocated a parliamentary system, saying: “I ask you to put this question to yourselves, should we not draw the Executive and Legislature closer together?” He believed checks and balances destroyed progress but didn’t advocate authoritarianism, just party-type parliamentary government.
Clearly the U.S. system cries out for such a separation of duties, even though it was created as a critique of abusive British majority government in the 18th Century. The framers of the U.S. Constitution avoided making the president a King but in the Imperial Presidency context, the office has turned into that—it’s even been dynastic now, with the Bushes, though not the Clintons. Maybe the separation it needs is already happening too; Congressional leaders prepared the recent failed health care and successful tax bills; not the President who by some accounts barely read them. This is as it should be; Senate and House leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan know what will pass their chambers and supposedly have the level of expertise to prepare what they think (though I don’t) is effective legislation.
Back to Oprah
Which brings us back to Oprah and her trial balloon candidacy. I am second to none in my admiration for her; she is brilliant, she connects like no one else, is an authentic self-made billionaire and can’t be bought. Had she been in Canada, her superior communications abilities would have unquestionably landed her in the Governor General’s office here.
A successful Oprah candidacy would advance Woodrow Wilson’s dream as never before. More than that, President Winfrey would restore respect for the office and be an admired representative and advocate of U.S. interests around the world, gaining respect for her intelligence and insight. She’d retain the powers of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, too; can you imagine her dressing down the Joint Chiefs of Staff if they were dissembling on an issue like ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ or North Korean nuclear capabilities, for example? There would be no Constitutional change necessary, as the system is partially working like this now. The difference would be that there would be an informed, articulate Head of State, who knows how to ask pointed questions, with her country’s best interests at heart, and with the eloquence to match it. I am all for it. Oprah for President! Or someone else like her.