For the American people it seems like the grass is always seems greener on the other side. And the grass in question happens to be sitting behind a wrought-iron fence guarded by the secret service on the front lawn of the White House. As Americans we have a very unique relationship with our leader, the President of the United States -POTUS to his friends- as he is both our boss and our employee. We have had good Presidents, strong Presidents, war heroes, statesmen, peanuts farmers and actors, but it may be our fictional Presidents that say the most about us as a people and a nation. With House of Cards returning to Netflix this week, we thought this would be a good time to take a closer look at our fictional leaders like President Underwood or his West Wing counterpart, President Bartlet, and do some Presidential comparisons, both fact and fiction.
A Proportional Response
Let’s start with President Josiah Edward Bartlet. His fictional term lasted from 1999 to 2006. He is a economics professor from New Hampshire, who won the Nobel Price for his work in that field. He is also a former Governor of New Hampshire and a direct descendant of Josiah Bartlett, who signed the Declaration of Independence. By all accounts he is a New England academic from a very old family, and also a liberal Democrat who believes in gays in the military, campaign finance reform, and education. He is a bit long winded in a folksy way, but above all he is shown as being the best of us. Sure he lied about having Multiple Sclerosis and was embroiled in his fair share of Washington scandals, but it was never anything serious and when all was said and done he always took responsibility for his actions. He was shrewd, intelligent, compassionate, and warm. His legacy was defined by compromise and doing what was right. He stood by his friends, his family, and his staff, even when it wasn’t always politically savvy to do so.
His real-world counterpart was President George W. Bush, from 2000 to 2008, a Republican. Perhaps one of the only things he shared with his fictional counterpart was a sense of idealism and the fact that they were both Governors. Other than that, Bush was known for his war policies, his persona as a cowboy, and his inability to speak words. Under his administration the country saw the Patriot Act, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Now, we are not trying to paint Bush as a bad President, but we do want to show that he is a sharp contrast to the persona of President Jed Bartlet, who continually enjoyed a higher approval rating than the sitting President.
Though one can argue that President Bartlett existed before President Bush, there is no denying that the fictional POTUS is -in at least some way- a response to his more conservative and inarticulate real-world counterpart. Continuously throughout the Bush Presidency, a time when the President of the United States enjoyed some of the highest and then lowest approval ratings in history, it was Bartlet whom people turned to every week for solace and hope. His liberal policies were ahead of their time, and though he was sometimes accused of being overly sentimental the show often tackled national issues in thoughtful and heartfelt ways. By all accounts it often seemed as if Bartlet was the President people were looking for. Yet, it was Bush they voted for in 2000 and again in the 2004.
Next let’s look at President Francis Joseph Underwood, whose Presidency started only in season 3, but has been with the American public since 2013. His public persona is one of a judicious and fair-minded liberal. He ended a naval standoff with China, and started an ambitious domestic job program. However under this congenial appearance lies a different person. In reality, Underwood is a conniving, Machiavellian, and sometimes over-the-top evil character. He uses any means he can to rise to power, and has cheated on his wife, blackmailed, and manipulated the events around him to get to the White House. He is from a family that dates back to prominence during the 1800’s. Unlike Bartlet his public persona is completely different than his inner thoughts and private actions. A Southern Democrat and lawyer, he was the Majority Whip, then the Vice President before scheming his way into the Oval Office. President Underwood has no sense of tradition, decorum, or even a caring for the rules of fair play, and it is a role he almost revels in.
The real President since 2008 and during the run time of House of Cards is President Barrack Obama. He is from Chicago by way of Hawaii, and unlike the other three Presidents talked about already, has no famous ancestors or famous American name. Obama has passed laws for universal healthcare, repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t tell,” and is working on gun reform and climate change. He has partially helped to end some of our wars in the Middle East, and has had an overall positive effect on the American image overseas. Say what you will about the current President of the United States, but he is not Frank Underwood. Though, there has been some questionable tactics used under the Obama Administration in the area of drone attacks, it is hard to see our even tempered Commander-in-Chief embroiled in plots of power, sex, and murder.
Thus, we must wonder, that if Bartlet is a response to Bush, then is Underwood a response to -or even a condemnation of- Obama? Our current President is mild mannered and has been embroiled in very little and minor Washington scandals. Underwood, on the other hand, is fierce and has no qualms about things like corruption or adultery. The real POTUS rose to power on the tide of a national movement, while the fictional one gained his power by discrediting his predecessor and taking over his position. Many perceive President Obama as weak and lacking of a plan or the conviction to make America strong. President Underwood is anything but weak, and he always seems to have a plan. Unlike Bartlett and Bush, these two men are not from different parties and even have similiar liberal agendas. Also, Underwood like Obama shows a very politically attractive face to the American public, much like our current President. Instead, the House of Cards President differs more in his personal tactics and hunger for power. It can be argued that this match-up may say something -at least in part- about what some secretly suspect about our POTUS. Obama is sometimes too perfect, too congenial or too well behaved. Yet, we highly doubt our leader is playing from the Underwood playbook, so it is more likely House of Cards is just another form of Presidential wish-fulfillment. Still, the popularity of the Netflix show makes us wonder if we, the American people, tend to feel an attraction to fictional Presidents that embody everything our real-world Presidents do not.
Living in their Shoes
We can attribute some of the popularity for fictional Presidents to the fact that viewers get to live their triumphs and tragedies. We get to know our fictional leaders in ways we will never get to know our real ones. We can sit in on meetings with Jed Bartlet and see him struggle with decisions. We can follow the scheming of Frank Underwood and quietly cheer for his successes, even when we know it’s wrong. The very format of television is designed to put the audience on the side of the main character. When we look at our real-life Presidents we only get the snapshot, the man behind the podium, or the polished and cleaned-up sterile image of the leader of our country. We don’t get to see him joking with his staff, suffering from marital issues, or filing his tax returns. So in a way, our factual POTUS becomes less real -just a prop we see on our TV- when compared to the fictionalized and idealized President, especially by comparison.
What is more interesting is that The West Wing and House of Cards -though diametrically different from one another- offer a look into the evolution of how the viewing and voting public have thought of our elected officials over the years. To go from Josiah Bartlet to Frank Underwood is as much a change in what Americans look for in an elected official as it was to go from George Bush to Barrack Obama. The West Wing portrays the entire political process as one filled with smart and caring people who are doing their best to make the world better. Even Republicans are often portrayed as articulate and intelligent, except with differing views. House of Cards, on the other hand, goes out of its way to be a theatrical and ruthless look at modern American politics and governance. Each is a fictionalized version of the truth -we hope- yet each equally holds the attention and imagination of America. Perhaps these fictional Presidents and their shows are so popular because they give us an ideal we feel we don’t have or that we’ve lost in real life. Thus, each still holds enough truth to be believable and worthwhile, regardless of your political persuasion.
So, maybe this all really comes down to human nature, and our natural yearning for wanting what he don’t have. We, as the American public, are like a soccer mom dreaming about the pool boy, yet knowing all along that our dreams are nothing but fiction. We seem to lean toward a TV President that is the opposite of the current sitting POTUS, because we do that with everything else in our lives. We accept the factual while romanticizing the path not chosen. We use fiction all the time to ask the question, “What if?” and to condemn those in power who do not meet are sometimes exacting standards. Really, all this means is that if Donald Trump is elected, then after 2016 we may find ourselves with the most sane, humble, caring, and brilliant fictional President ever to be portrayed on television.