The era of celebrities and CEOs going straight to the White House may not begin and end with President Donald Trump. And now that the names of media billionaire Oprah Winfrey and Disney CEO Bob Iger have been floated as potential candidates, the possibilities of a series of celebs inhabiting the White House are getting a lot more real.
First, it's important to remember that while Mr. Trump's image before running for office was as a celebrity and a private real estate company CEO, it was his unique celebrity persona that was more important than the business resume and made him such a formidable candidate. That celebrity status gave him priceless name recognition in that field of 17 GOP candidates in the primaries. But just as importantly, his 30 years of sparring with the New York news media and 15 years worth of dealing with a sometimes combative reality show atmosphere on "The Apprentice" prepared President Trump for the rough political arena.
With that in mind, let's look at the top 5 celebrity/CEO presidential contenders and assess their pros and cons.
5) Leonardo DiCaprio
DiCaprio is one of Hollywood's most popular stars with a long history of political activism under his belt, especially when it comes to the environment. The New Republic got into the fray on this topic in January by putting DiCaprio on its short list of people who would make strong Democratic presidential candidates in 2020. And unlike many other celebrities of his stature, he's a little more used to mixing it up with critics as he often does when debating global warming and its effects.
But his drawbacks as a candidate are still very significant. A lot has changed about politics and the supposed prerequisites to run for office in America. But not everything. Unmarried, childless men running for office are at a distinct disadvantage for a number of reasons. Just think about how much of a chance Donald Trump would have had to win without his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka by his side, (less than zero). And DiCaprio's environmental focus is not much of a plus as concern about Climate Change has been falling in the polls for years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. All bets are off if he suddenly becomes a leading voice in the fight for income equality or a similar additional cause.
4) Bob Iger
The Hollywood Reporter says the Disney CEO is also considering a run, with a lot of nudging by his friends to put those Mickey Mouse ears on the White House. As a business leader widely believed to have fixed a governance mess at Disney when he took over, Iger seems like a logical choice to jump into politics. And who couldn't love a guy who's brought us all the popular pieces of the Magic Kingdom for so long?
The answer could be the voters. It's not that they'd hate Iger, it's just that you have to do more than have a strong resume to win elections. A candidate has to be persuasive and compelling to listen to and watch. Iger isn't a bad speaker, but he's no show-stopper. And he also hasn't ever had to face the kind of scrutiny a successful politician must endure to win an election. Remember, President Trump is in the White House now in many ways despite his CEO experience, not because of it.
3) Howard Schultz
The timing seems to be right for the Starbucks founder and CEO as he prepares to leave the company in time to mount a presidential campaign. In an interview with CNN Money last fall, he didn't rule out a run. And unlike most CEOs, including Iger, he's been an outspoken pundit on political issues and debates for a long time on live TV. He's a better speaker than Iger and even DiCaprio. And there's another factor very much in Schultz's favor: Geography. The unique 50 state reach of the Starbucks chain and Schultz's familiarity with those regions is reminiscent of the invaluable experience Ronald Reagan gained when he spent years touring General Electric plants across the country and getting to know how to connect with an eclectic array of Americans from all those regions.
But Starbucks is no Disney. Sure, half the country seems to be addicted to the product, but it's a company a lot of people truly hate and Schultz is the founder. He's also gone from promoting himself as an independent centrist to becoming much more of a liberal Democrat. That's fine for types like Senator Bernie Sanders, but CEO/outsider candidates do best when they present themselves as being outside the typical left/right divide.
2) Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey just refused to rule out running for the White House in a televised interview. Winfrey is so loved and revered by a significant segment of the population that she would be a formidable candidate for president even if she weren't also a billionaire with a massive media messaging machine at her disposal. This is especially true among white and black women, bridging a divide that made a profound difference in the 2016 election when President Trump won the white female vote. Her political clout is also enormous and has even been calculated by economists who believe her endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008 resulted in more than 1 million more votes for Obama over Hillary Clinton. And those 1 million votes made the difference. Winfrey's influence over the voters is considered to be so strong, that even some of the moderate Democrats at the New Republic wrote in 2011 that they were relieved she was retiring.
So could Oprah win? If we were talking about a statewide election, especially in Illinois, there would be no doubt she'd triumph. But a presidential run is a different animal. Winfrey is popular mostly among women, and you can't win the White House with only the women's vote. Just as importantly, her 30+ years of being treated like a god by her fans and a fawning media will work against her in the rough and tumble of a election filled with opposing candidates and opposition research. Winfrey is no wilting flower, and the struggles she overcame in her youth would serve her well on the campaign trail. But she's simply never had to face a more hostile media and political opponents before. That would likely make her angry, and there's a good chance the voters wouldn't like Oprah when she's angry.
1) Tom Hanks
And that brings us to the kind celebrity that defies all potential drawbacks and would win any election, any time.
Movie star Tom Hanks is that guy.
The actor who's been honored by being described as the Jimmy Stewart of our times has probably the most beloved image in America. And that's true for men, women, and children of all races.
There's a funny story that begins to explain just how much of a positive image people like Stewart and Hanks enjoy: When Ronald Reagan was first running for Governor of California in the 1960s, his friends approached the dying Samuel Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and told him, "We want Ronald Reagan for governor." The fading Goldwyn thought they were talking about a movie and replied, "no, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend."
Like Stewart, Hanks is the guy so many of us see as a presidential type. (Filmmaker Michael Moore touted his name, along with Oprah's, on CNN last fall after Hillary Clinton lost the election.) Hanks burnished his image even further after the election when despite not supporting the Trump campaign, he eloquently urged Americans to support and respect the new president.
In other affairs, Hanks is not an overly political person, but he hasn't stayed on the sidelines either. He's been a major advocate for space program funding and his personal involvement in the fundraising for the World War II Monument in Washington, D.C. This experience combines his persuasive and political chops, though as far as I know, Hanks has not made any public statements about a political run.
What makes all of the above people even worth discussing isn't just because Donald Trump won the 2016 election, opening the door for non-traditional candidates. The real reason why non-politicians are more viable than ever is because the dislike of the political class is at an all-time high, especially since the financial crisis and its corresponding bank bailouts.
But while President Trump takes on the role of a blunt instrument to smash the political class, another celebrity running for the White House might have the best chance if he or she can convince the public that he or she is going to defeat the D.C. status quo with more class.
After four or eight years of a Trump presidency, it's still not likely the voters will want to go back to a Washington or a president they see as overly political. But they could be best persuaded by someone who is still an outsider, just less divisive.
That's the final factor that solidifies Hanks as the one celebrity who would be the most unbeatable presidential candidate. The only question is whether he would even choose to run, but otherwise Hanks is untouchable.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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