WASHINGTON — When the self-help author Marianne Williamson made her last run for president, she was a curiosity on the fringe of a field of more than two dozen candidates.
Now she’s trying to get people to take her seriously.
Since ending her 2020 campaign weeks before the first votes were cast, Ms. Williamson, a onetime spiritual guru to Oprah Winfrey and others, has moved to Washington and tried without much success to inject herself into the capital’s political consciousness. On Saturday she announced herself as the first Democratic challenger to President Biden — who hasn’t said himself that he’s running again.
In her campaign kickoff speech, Ms. Williamson, 70, made no talk of exorcising the “dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred” in American politics or of calling New Zealand as her first act in office. Instead, she sounded more like a Bernie Sanders-style liberal, focused on economic justice, corporate power and what she called the intentional blindness of powerful federal government officials to poverty in America.
“Some people in this city don’t have the spine or the moral courage to fix it,” Ms. Williamson said, lowering her voice two octaves for effect. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me in there.”
A lot has changed since 2019, when her Democratic primary debate performances prompted Republican operatives to encourage conservatives to donate to her to help maintain her debate eligibility in an attempt to distract from more established Democratic candidates.
Other Oprah-world celebrities without political experience ran for office last year and were taken seriously. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Republican, lost the Pennsylvania Senate race, while Wes Moore, a Democrat, became the governor of Maryland — and Ms. Winfrey spoke at his inauguration in January.
Ms. Williamson, who moved to Des Moines to ingratiate herself with Iowans before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses (which the Democratic National Committee has since abandoned), relocated to the nation’s capital shortly after ending her presidential campaign — unorthodox given how much of modern presidential campaigning is stressing one’s independence from Washington. Now she lives in a rented apartment in Foggy Bottom, where she had imagined hosting salons, debating big ideas and influencing policy discussions.
The Democrats’ Primary Calendar
Upending decades of political tradition, members of the Democratic National Committee have voted to approve a sweeping overhaul of the party’s primary process.
“I wanted to have the experience of living here, given how much I talk about it and think about it,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Williamson is finding that while it was one thing to join a crowded field to run against President Donald J. Trump in 2020, it’s quite another to challenge a sitting Democratic president.
Few in Democratic politics are taking her entry into the race seriously. The White House declined to comment on her entry or respond to her criticisms of Mr. Biden. Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had no comment when asked about her announcement. And even some of her top staffers from the 2020 campaign described themselves as solid Biden supporters who wished she wouldn’t run again.
“She has good ideas and she can add to the debate,” said Patricia Ewing, Ms. Williamson’s 2020 campaign manager. “But this is not her time to actually run for office.”
Yet her status as a challenger to Mr. Biden — really, as the only Democrat running so far — may for now afford Ms. Williamson a platform denied to her last time. She is scheduled to appear on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, and her kickoff speech packed more than 800 people into a ballroom at Washington’s Union Station train terminal.
On Saturday, Ms. Williamson delivered a 21-minute speech without notes or a teleprompter, declaring her bid the start of a movement against established corporate power and economic inequalities.
“It is our job to create a vision of justice and love that is so powerful that it will override the forces of hatred and injustice and fear,” she said.
Ms. Williamson did not mention Mr. Biden in her public remarks. But she did not hold back in an interview days before her kickoff.
She blamed the president for not passing a minimum-wage increase when he had Democratic majorities in Congress — “he hid behind the skirt of the parliamentarian,” she said — and said he hasn’t pushed for “genuine reform” of a political system she said still benefits the rich and powerful.
Asked to grade Mr. Biden’s first two years in the White House, Ms. Williamson at first gave him a B. Later in the interview, she asked to amend her rating to “between a B and a C.”
“I believe that he is an unwise offering and a weak choice for 2024,” Mr. Williamson said.
“The idea that no one should run against Biden because that will hurt the Democrats in 2024 makes no sense,” she added. “I don’t know why we should be so afraid of the messiness of democracy.”
Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, declined to comment.
The crowd at Ms. Williamson’s campaign event on Saturday was made up of longtime superfans who traveled from across the country, social media influencers and podcasters, local college students and political tourists passing through Washington.
“Sixty percent of Democrats really don’t want Biden to run,” said Bill Balkus, an architect from Newburyport, Mass., who volunteered for Ms. Williamson’s last campaign in New Hampshire. “If Biden ever debates her, the world will see how bright she is.”
The Democratic National Committee does not currently plan to hold debates.
Jenn Shasserre, a graduate student from Portland, Ore., came to see Ms. Williamson before catching a flight back home. She described herself as a fan of Mr. Sanders and said Mr. Biden’s time in the White House “hasn’t been terrible.”
“I would like us to have more options in the party,” Ms. Shasserre said. “I appreciate that she’s going to bring some of the issues I really care about to the forefront.”
Whether Ms. Williamson can do that will depend in part on how much money she raises.
In her last campaign, Ms. Williamson raised $8.4 million. It was hardly enough to be competitive for the party’s nomination, but still more than was raised by one senator (Michael Bennet), three governors (John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee and Steve Bullock) and three House members (Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell and Seth Moulton) who were in the race. She said she had already raised $250,000 and had a dozen people on her staff.
How much more she can command in a campaign cycle in which many Democrats appear disinclined to hold grand policy debates is to be determined. The party may be skittish about Mr. Biden’s age, but it is far less worried about his politics, given the number of Biden acolytes who won critical midterm elections in battleground states.
But that, for Ms. Williamson, may be precisely the point of her campaign.
“I don’t feel like I’m running against Joe Biden,” she said. “I feel I’m running to challenge the system.”