Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 6, 2013 8:18PM

President Obama is ruining my favorite show, The West Wing

Rate: 5 Flag

Countless new fans are discovering The West Wing, now that it’s available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. They’ll love the show; it’s full of quirky, witty, flawed characters that form the principled, passionate staff of advisers in the administration of fictional President Josiah Bartlet.

Unfortunately, thanks to real life President Barack Obama, the show has become kind of a joke.

That’s not a knock on its quality. When it aired between 1999 and 2006, it stood out as a sharp, provocative drama, and its themes of civil service, ideology, and pragmatism resonate today.

When you get to the day-to-day of the show, it seems like Bartlet and his staff aren’t putting in much effort.

Consider the accomplishments: in his first term, the Nobel Prize-winning president appoints the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, expands college aid to millions of students and their families, brags about creating 3.8 million new jobs in his first few years, and makes half-hearted lip service about repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Not bad, I guess, for a president in the early 2000s.

For a president today, it’s pretty mediocre. President Obama won his Nobel Prize on the job, nominated and confirmed the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, and followed that up with a second appointment, Elena Kagan, the fourth female justice in history. He expanded college aid, too, by roughly doubling the Pell Grant budget, which itself was a just a small part of a larger law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which stands as the most significant expansion of the United States healthcare system since Medicare.

Obama also oversaw the creation of 3.9 million new jobs in just two years, from March 2010 through February 2012, after we recovered from the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. And he didn’t just pay lip service to ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – he ended it. As of September 20, 2011, gay and lesbian soldiers have been able to serve openly. 

The West Wing featured plenty of foreign victories, including Bartlet’s order to have a wanted terrorist, Abdul Shareef (of the fictional Qumar), taken out by Navy Seals. It’s not quite as impressive in context, since they masterfully located Shareef by, uh, inviting him to the White House, and then shot him in the head when he stepped out of a private plane.

I’m not saying it isn’t an achievement; I’m just saying it wouldn’t inspire a movie like Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, I’m not sure Osama bin Laden is an appropriate point of comparison to Shareef. His real-life counterpart might be more akin to Anwar Al-Awlaki, who Obama took down with a flying robot.

If it sounds like I’m trashing the show, I’m not. Josiah Bartlet is one of my favorite TV characters. He embraces his professorial nature and shuns the faux-folksy tone that so many politicians adopt. He’s a great husband and father, and he bravely survived a racially-motivated shooting (though if it led to any action on gun control, they didn’t mention it).

He’s just doesn’t match up to the guy we have now. Sure, it was pretty daring then. In one episode, Bartlet grapples with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over how much spending cuts to write into the budget. That’s politically difficult, but President Obama made Republicans vote for the most progressive tax increase on the super-wealthy since the 1970s.

New viewers should still watch the show. It’s entertaining and funny, and it inspires a sense of civic duty among viewers. It humanizes the people who make our government work.

Just try to watch it quick. There are a few episodes tackling illegal immigration that might still seem relevant, at least until Obama ruins those, too.

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shooting invited guests is still a bridge too far. presumably some people still remember when politicians pretended to some kind of morality, and while obama doesn't have visible ethics, he does insert distance between himself and criminal behavior.
I loved that show, and the movie that inspired it, "American President." I think Aaron Sorkin should run for office. Thanks for drawing the parallels.
This essay reveals some very thought provoking issues regarding American drama, and how it informs our thinking. Americans distort reality by placing a happy ending expectation on everything. I enjoyed the first few seasons of The West Wing too. It kind of wore on too long as the rapid-fire banter became ridiculous.

Just like the show escaped reality on the pace of the banter, so does criticism of the current administration, with no concern for reality. American drama can be a bit cartoonish, and lose the attention of adults who lose interest without the balance that complexity and pathos can provide. Similarly, our entertainment based news media, and consumers hopped up on the sugar corn puff American drama diet, render their analysis and commentary to a cartoonish understanding of the world.
I never thought of West Wing in terms of it not measuring up to Obama. Given the criticisms of Obama, that's really kind of funny.
For me West Wing was a joy to watch until Sorkin departed and then it went into the tank... a couple of seasons went by while the new writers found their footing and the last season was spectacularly good. What is so spooky is that West Wing in its way predicted Obama's rise to the Presidency... or did Obama use the episodic plots of the West Wing to engineer his ascendancy? Only history will tell.