Why Oprah Won't Help Obama

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Harpo, Inc. / REUTERS

(l. to r.): U.S. Senator Barack Obama, his wife Michelle Obama, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

To win the Democratic nomination for President, Barack Obama still needs the same thing he has needed all along — for voters to see him as ready to be commander in chief by January 2009. So now the question is: Will appearing at weekend campaign rallies with Oprah Winfrey help him achieve that goal?

Mark me down as more than a bit skeptical.

Winfrey's endorsement — and her announcement that she will appear with Obama at campaign events in Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire on December 8 and 9 — helps bring the following four things to Obama: campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds.

The four things that Obama has on his own in great abundance — without Winfrey's help — are campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds.

It might seem that the support and upcoming appearances of Winfrey are surely a net plus for Obama. His campaign manager David Plouffe tells TIME that she is a "transcendent figure," who has avoided sullying herself in politics before and, thus, will provide "a newness and freshness" in appealing to the female and older voters whom Obama is trying to reach.

Without question, Winfrey's foray onto the campaign trail will get Obama more publicity and a chance to convert her fans into Obama supporters.

But a more important event for his chances of winning might actually be taking place on Tuesday of this week, when he appears in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with some of his top foreign policy advisers for a forum with local residents. Joining Obama will be Bill Clinton's former national security adviser Tony Lake, along with Richard Danzig, Susan Rice, Samantha Power (a TIME contributor), and Sarah Sewall, as well as some prominent New Hampshire retired military officials. It was just this kind of event that Bill Clinton used effectively in his 1992 campaign to convince voters that he was ready to be commander in chief.

None of these Obama supporters are, of course, as famous as Oprah Winfrey — or particularly famous at all. But their validation — that Obama's brand of experience and his foreign policy vision make him qualified to lead America's military and protect the nation's national security — could well do more for Obama than anything a talk show host (even a talk show host as powerful as Winfrey) can do.

In polls and focus groups, voters continue to express doubts about Obama's readiness for the presidency, particularly when compared with Clinton. Some analysts have taken to saying that "experience" is a threshold question — that Obama does not need to be seen as more ready than Clinton, just ready enough to do the job. That might be true (or it might not), but the evidence suggests that many voters still have reservations about the Illinois Senator. And the Clinton campaign plainly intends to do what it can to undermine her rival on this very point between now and January.

So yes, expect loud, rousing rallies in all three early voting states when Oprah Winfrey comes to town with her friend Barack Obama in early December, with gobs of media attention, raucous crowds, emotion and great pictures. But don't expect those events to do anything productive to allow Obama to get over the biggest hurdle standing between him and the White House. American voters are not looking for a celebrity or talk show sidekick to lead them. Obama is an intelligent and thoughtful potential President, but Winfrey's imprimatur is unlikely to convey those traits to many undecided voters.

In that respect, Winfrey's events might even be — dare it be said — counterproductive.

With reporting by Karen Tumulty