Obama is Straight Out of The West Wing in More Ways Than One, But Are the Credits Rolling?

Andrew E. Busch

July 1, 2008

Several months ago, as Barack Obama began his ascent to the Democratic presidential nomination, a spate of commentary appeared pointing out the parallel between Obama and the character Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) on the television show The West Wing.

In its seventh season, The West Wing featured a presidential election campaign in which Santos, a young Latino with only six years experience in Congress, came from behind to beat a Washington insider in a close race for the Democratic nomination. Like Obama, Santos was a former community organizer, was married with two children, and won with effective grassroots organization and a promise of change and unity.

As it turned out, West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie admitted that Obama himself had served as the inspiration for Santos. Having been impressed by Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Attie drew up The West Wing presidential race with Obama in mind.

While the parallel is interesting—and perhaps all the more so because art imitated life, which then imitated art—it is not the only way that Obama has been, until very recently, a figure straight out of The West Wing. It is in Obama’s predominant approach to politics that he seems most at home with President Josiah Bartlet.

While political junkies of all stripes loved The West Wing for its intense depiction of Washington politics, the show was particularly beloved by political liberals, who liked it for the same reason they have been drawn to Obama.

On the show, it was not uncommon for Republicans or conservatives to be given their opportunity to make a case. President Bartlet was open-minded and fair, except when dealing with conservative Christians, who were exempt from the fairness requirement. It was just that, in the end, after giving anguished consideration to alternative ideas, he and his staff almost always did the liberal thing.

This motif has been perfectly replicated by Obama. His campaign is based on themes of unity, coming together, and listening to one another. He is willing and able to articulate the concerns of his political opponents, sometimes even accurately. Republicans in Nebraska have been quoted as saying that they feel that Obama understands them. In the end, though, Obama is still stuck with the most liberal voting record in the Senate, with a proposed program that seems to make no actual concessions, and, until the last three weeks, with no evidence of ever having departed from his party’s orthodoxy in any meaningful way.

This combination is especially appealing to liberals both on television and in reality. It allows them to indulge their self-image as fair and open-minded while simultaneously reaffirming every last tittle and jot of their ideological prejudices. Obama/Bartlet is reasonable and open-minded, so of course he always decides that the liberals are right!

With Obama—as with the fictional characters on The West Wing—it is hard to tell whether he has really taken seriously the intellectual exercise of weighing his opponents’ views or is just engaged in lip service to disarm his opponents and sanctify his supporters. It hardly matters. The result until now has been the same.

The storyline does not end there, however. After wrapping up the Democratic nomination, Obama seems to have concluded that The West Wing, whatever resemblance it bore to certain aspects of reality, was nevertheless a work of fiction and could not be relied upon as a guide through Election Day. He has accordingly trimmed his liberal sails on issues including NAFTA, guns, and the President’s surveillance bill, bringing cries of hurt and outrage from many of his erstwhile supporters. There is no evidence that any of these shifts were the result of a newly-invigorated intellectual appraisal of alternative viewpoints—Obama as a Bartlet who might not always do the liberal thing. Instead, they seem rather clearly to be the result of naked calculation.

In either case, though, liberals who pine for a real-life version of The West Wing cannot help but be disappointed. And it is too late to call central casting.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.