Obama Woos the Oprah Voter Again

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She remains a powerful microphone for a White House looking to regain the 2008 magic

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CHICAGO -- Sorry, America, but Chicago is not atwitter over President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama returning to tape "Oprah" on Wednesday -- even if its significance shouldn't be discounted.

Other stuff is going on. Two sports teams have been in the playoffs. Agonizing over two, underperforming baseball teams is in full swing. A policy Energizer Bunny, the maniacally-disciplined and primed-for-action Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel, is sucking up media oxygen prior to his May 16 inaugural. Gas prices are over $4.50 a gallon. And the economy's awful and people are hurting.

And ratings for Oprah Winfrey, the most potent force in daytime television, have been tracking downward in recent years. Even the much ballyhooed final season of her show, which opened with word that John Travolta would fly the entire audience of 300 by commercial jet to Australia (which he did in December), has seen a decline (with the exception of a few home runs, including an appearance by her long-lost sister).

Yet the Obamas' planned appearance (to be aired May 2) is surely a winner, in the great middle-brow cultural tradition of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon making fun of himself on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" in 1968 or then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 playing sax on Arsenio Hall's old show. Oprah, after all, is still as big as it gets on daytime, a force to be reckoned with, her ratings still unsurpassed elsewhere on the 300-plus channel smorgasbord of soaps, infomercials, maudlin flicks, endless "Law and Order" reruns, and knockoff talk shows.

"In an age of increasing cynicism and instant analysis, you have to find ways to communicate outside the filter of the political media," says Chicago-based Democratic political consultant Eric Adelstein. "Add to that the validation of a cultural icon, and it makes a lot of sense. It also makes him seem less 'political' and more 'institutional.'"

More "institutional"?

"To most, 'politics' is a turnoff," Adelstein elaborated. "Politicians are held in historically low regard. But as president if you are part of the cultural, institutional fabric that defines the day to day 'conversation' beyond politics -- 'Oh, Barack was on 'Oprah" talking about going gray, his daughters growing up, Michelle's anti-obesity campaign,' whatever, then you can transcended being 'just' a politician, or even 'just' the president."

There is too, the unavoidable political calculus, which goes beyond merely being embraced by a beloved icon who played no small role in the 2008 campaign. Oprah's endorsement and appearances on behalf of Obama may have been especially potent in the key initial Obama victory, at the Iowa caucuses, especially among female voters initially wary of supporting an African American.

The Oprah audience thus represents a demographic of women that Obama attracted in great numbers back then and probably needs to hold in large chunks if he's to be re-elected. Like other Democrats and independents, their loyalty is wavering somewhat now, and they certainly didn't provide much ballot box help to Democrats during the Republicans' mid-term election tsunami last November.

So Oprah remains a very expansive microphone for a White House which has stumbled a bit when it comes to political communications and effective strategic positioning.

For example, we're in a pretty big financial hole as a nation and the Republicans suggest that few, if any, concessions should come from the best-off among us. Their argument would seem a no-brainer to exploit, especially as federal, state and local budget slashing will cream the poor.

But, from at least outside the Beltway, it seems as if the Democrats are on the defensive. It's all the more curious given how Obama did inherit an economic mess of stunning proportions, has done much to counteract it and, conservative talk show chatter aside, actually helped "real people." My favorite, little-understood, example involves bolstering the student loan program with many billions of dollars that had been subsidizing banks; a rather vivid and rare example of a Robin Hood-like Congress actually taking directly from the haves and giving to the have-nots.

But try finding even many students or parents who realize that this stunning change took place. It somehow got lost in the fray of bashing auto bailouts and stimulus spending; a victim of a facile but effective Republican and tea party counterattack on supposedly wayward government spending.

As for the 2012 election campaign, even cable TV pundits, like me, had best remember, when mulling Libya, Iraq, Donald Trump or Oprah, that this is April of 2011. It is early in the cycle.

The uncertainty of the domestic political, international and general economic outlooks is substantial. One can't have a real clue about whether Obama can retain surprise 2008 victories in states now decidedly Republican, such as Colorado, Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. Who knows whether changes detailed in new Census data, like big Latino population surges in states Obama lost, such as Arizona, could turn things around for him.

Oh, and unless I'm mistaken, the president doesn't know whom he'll be running against. One can only assume that any early opposition research on Donald Trump will entail no more than 15 minutes of Googling before broad smiles break out and fingers are crossed.

The ultimate opponent, and campaign context, probably won't be that easy. And that's why you exploit the early no-brainers which are offered. Such grossly obvious acts include paying homage to Oprah before she packs up and exits your hometown.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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