Arts & Culture

Political Theatre: The Image of a Presidency

While many US presidents have struggled with their public perception, fictional presidents on TV are made to be fascinating to the audience, although they benefit from not having to solve real-world problems. A 2015 Reuters-Ipsos poll showed that NBC viewers had a much higher approval rating of fictional presidents, such as Scandal’s Fitzgerald Grant and even the diabolical Frank Underwood from House of Cards, than they did of their real president, Barack Obama. Presidents have to perform when they are campaigning as well as during their term, through speeches and other public appearances. The characters they project are some of the most important in American TV. 

 The West Wing, a political drama that follows the term of a fictional president, began airing in 1999 during Bill Clinton’s presidency and ran for seven seasons into George W. Bush’s term. According to Google Trends, interest in the show is growing again, as it did around the time of President Obama’s first run. Martin Sheen described his character, President Jed Bartlet, to the fan site Empire as a conglomeration of “the very best that we had in that office in recent history.” Bartlet is a wise, fatherly, witty economics professor—a Democrat and a descendant of a founding father—and known for always trying to follow his conscience. The show centers around the White House communications staff, who help Bartlet craft his public image and serve as advisors as he navigates the complex playing field of United States politics. His staff prepare constantly to deliver appropriate information to the people, the press, and the other branches of government. Their job becomes especially difficult when the president—or anyone at the White House—says something controversial and creates a crisis for the staff to solve. There are many more forms of media through which the public perceives the president in the real world, including social media. Tufts Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry said in an email, “President Trump is unique in his dominance of the news through his tweets and deliberately provocative pronouncements. Staff vetting does not restrain him.” 

In contrast to The West Wing’s moralistic representation, Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards represent the darker and often sadistic side to wielding presidential power. The first season of the show opens with Frank Underwood killing a dog and continues as he lies, cheats, and murders his way to the top. His successor and later widow, Claire, is equally conniving, making shady deals and hiding condemning evidence throughout her tenure. When the show first aired as part of Netflix’s debut into original content in 2013, it was the most streamed show on the platform. This popularity suggests, in a fictional context at least, that people like to see a very ambitious president—one who cares less about morals or crafting a careful political message and more about getting things done by any means necessary. 

Though House of Cards is a drama and not necessarily reflective of how politics function in the real world, the characters on the show still operate in the same setting and with many of the same motivations as real politicians do. All presidential candidates need to perform in televised debates, town halls, and other events while campaigning. The first-ever televised presidential debate took place in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, even though those who listened to the debate on the radio mostly thought that Nixon had performed better in the debate, most television viewers either called it a draw or said that Kennedy had won. Footage of the debate shows that Kennedy presented himself better and was more at ease before a camera, displaying an attractive charisma to the voting populace. In fact, Kennedy’s narrow win is often attributed to the televised debate. After the defeat, Nixon’s 1968 race included a team of public speaking coaches to help him through televised appearances, creating what would become a norm for all future presidential candidates. Presidents are still very visible on TV, whether it be through election debates or public announcements. Their behavior and remarks give an impression to the public of the candidate’s personality beyond their position on current issues. The character that candidates choose to play on TV can make a significant difference to their public image and whether they are perceived as a good representative of the country. 

Many politicians make cameo appearances on TV shows, like Joe Biden’s appearance on an episode of Parks and Recreation and the various politician hosts on Saturday Night Live. However, besides President Reagan (who acted in films), President Trump, who created The Apprentice, is the only president to have a recurring role in a reality TV show. Berry said, “[The Apprentice] did have an impact as it greatly expanded Trump’s name recognition and generated an image of him as a dynamic, successful businessman.” Donald Trump was the presidential figure on The Apprentice. He showed up only to make important decisions in a briefing room, leaving other parts of the show to staff. Television creates a sense of intimacy between the watcher and the subject, be it a fictional subject or real personality.
Still, there is a stark contrast between the fictional White House and the actual White House. In the first season of The West Wing, President Bartlet’s staff feel that his administration is unable to make significant changes because they are too focused on trying to make sure nothing he says or does makes him unpopular when he runs for re-election. Trump’s presidency has often gone in the opposite direction—Trump demands control over his words, even on delicate subjects, and neglects the assistance of his staff. A White House spokesperson told the New York Times that “whether it be at a rally, a manufacturing plant opening or the State of the Union. What the American people hear is 100 percent President Trump’s own words.” His words have instigated backlash from his press staff, his political allies and foes, and even on the social media platform that he uses most, Twitter.   

However, Vice President Joe Biden also commits errors that would have upset The West Wing staff. During a speech in Michigan, he said that there had been “6,144 military COVID deaths” when he meant to say “Michigan deaths.” Additionally, Biden said during a campaign event in Ohio that he was running for Senate currently instead of in the past. While Trump’s insistence on writing his own words are difficult to spin, Biden’s stumbling can be spun and attributed to his speech impediment. 

Both candidates offer distinct images of their intended presidencies. Joe Biden is a Jed Bartlet style president: he’s moralistic, a career politician, and prone to sweeping declarations, such as when Biden announced that he would cure cancer if elected at a campaign stop in Iowa in June. It remains to be seen if he is the kind of president people want in real life, though his on-screen counterpart was likeable. While President Trump is no Frank Underwood, his projected image has been of a presidency with much less emphasis on political correctness. Leo McGarry, President Bartlet’s chief of staff, said to Bartlet when he was running for his first term, “I’m tired of it. Year after year after year after year having to choose between the lesser of who cares, of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences, of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that, do you?” There is no fictional character that would make a good president, for the very reason that they are fictional. However, every president in the modern age does have to inhabit a persona on TV. It is up to each president to figure out how to make an emotional connection with the American people through television that makes them feel like they personally know the politician.