The Real Thing: Obama and Bartlet

As our president’s bid for reelection nears, Janet Manley sees his fate reflected in “The West Wing’s” commander-in-chief, Josiah Bartlet.


The reality of the Bartlet White House is a flood of mistakes. An agenda hopelessly stalled and lacking a coherent strategy. An administration plagued by indecision.West Wing character Mandy Hampton

In a flashback in The West Wing, one character tries to convince another to leave his job and come work for an ailing presidential campaign; they’re both bright people working for lousy causes. The first, Joshua Lyman, asks, “If I see the real thing in Nashua, should I tell you about it?”

“You won’t have to,” replies Sam Seaborn. “You’ve got a pretty bad poker face.” Lyman gets a brief taste of presidential candidate Josiah Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) honesty and cranky blazer-over-head shenanigans in New Hampshire (“You got hosed,” Bartlet admits to a farmer whose subsidy he cut). Lyman hurries back to New York to recruit Seaborn, appearing at the door dripping wet from an apparent hurricane, with a look of “it’s always been you, Rach” on his face. The dream team is born.

America experienced a similar giddiness during the Obama campaign in 2008, when bumpers, lawns, and dorm rooms all extolled “hope” and “change.” (Recall the Bartlet speech: “We can do better, and we must do better, and we will do better, and we will start this moment today!”) My future husband, Josh, a former congressional intern, introduced me to The West Wing staffers in the early-2000s, back when Dick Cheney worked from his death star in the Old Executive Office Building. Two prized items sat on Josh’s dresser from his brief time on the Hill: a photo-op with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a group shot with Congressman Gary Ackerman, who is wearing a chef’s hat and waving a pickle in the air. (Not pictured: an anecdote about Ackerman’s second yacht, “the Unsinkable II,” after the first went to a watery grave.) Supplementary to these and a White House Post-it pad was the box set of West Wing DVDs, each in their own “brief”; a perfect introduction to the American political psyche for a cynical foreigner like myself.
As the real 2008 primaries got into full swing, we tore our way through season after season (“Let Bartlet be Bartlet”) while watching the parallel rise of the Obama campaign. When the Illinois senator visited Denver, we watched him speak at the Colorado School of Mines, satisfied that he lived up to the hype in terms of his rhetorical skill and the ambition he brought to the arena, evidenced in the sheer excitement among volunteers, audience members and t-shirt vendors. Like an atheist dancing in a gospel church, I was swept up by the thrill of this man whose election would have ramifications for global politics, also. 

The Guy Who Rides Amtrak From Delaware

On August 5, 2008, prior to Obama announcing his vice-presidential pick, Josh had a six-hour layover in LAX. Not a week prior, he sat for the Colorado bar exam and was deep in decompression mode, sporting a feral beard and bleach-splattered black hoodie, and running on Sublime tunes. Standing adjacent a phone-charger station in a quiet wing of the airport, he noticed a white-haired man in an expensive suit. Allowing a moment’s naked staring to make sure, Josh pegged the man as Senator Joe Biden, head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a presidential candidate in the 1998 and 2008 elections. This is the guy that rides Amtrak from Delaware to D.C., he thought. He had a U.S. senator just paces away, on his own; an opening anyone from Washington would kill for. Fuck it, I’m going to say hello. And for ten minutes, Biden was generous enough to speak with him about law school, loan repayments, health care and the scarcity of jobs — that is, my husband had no job and no health insurance to speak of at the time. In their brief chat, Biden agreed that health coverage for all Americans was “one of our country’s great tasks.” (As opposed to something that 47% of Americans audaciously believe they are “entitled” to.)

Nearing midnight in airport limbo, this was one of the last times Biden would travel by commercial airliner, absent a security detail and a press corps. On August 23, Obama formally announced Biden as his choice of vice president, following a highly secretive August 6 vetting in Minneapolis, according to New Yorker staff writer Ryan Lizza’s account. Josh touts the night as a fleeting opportunity to have a direct discourse with a United States senator. The last thing Josh asked Biden was, “So Obama — is he the real deal? I mean, do you know if he is it?” Biden gave some pause, then replied, “He surrounds himself with a lot of great people, and his choices are always well thought out. And yes, I think he’s the real deal.”

We were already sold on Obama at this point (though as an Australian citizen, my vote is purely symbolic), but recall that the real race up until that point had been between Hillary Clinton and Obama, with John McCain yet to make his fateful vice-presidential nominee pick. They were two good choices, the latter too new to Washington to have been corrupted, but also too new to necessarily have a lock on the job; he was too idealistic, too naïve, too esoteric. The proposition of Obama for POTUS recalled the words of Leo McGarry: “They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that, do you?”

The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight

In hindsight, we know that at the start of his first term Obama was walking into policy negotiations far tougher than anything Aaron Sorkin had dreamed up for the Roosevelt room, with American Reinvestment and Recovery and Affordable Care acts in the wings. President Obama has acknowledged his personal sense of failure and frustration at times, while an obstructionist Congress turned filibustering from the topic of a novel episode of The West Wing into a daily ritual.

The big question is: where did we go wrong in the last four years? The bungled debt-ceiling negotiations-turned hostage situation between Republicans and Democrats is the best example of Bartlet’s maxim that “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Obama’s pragmatism hit a wall when it became apparent that John Boehner couldn’t deliver the votes even if they struck a bargain. The Republican tactic again and again was simply to filibuster and thwart progress on the economic front, dragging out extensions of highway funding, setting a doomsday machine of budget cuts to go off in 2013 and campaigning all the while to cut taxes further. As the Bartlet administration found in The West Wing, raw idealism could only get you so far in a game requiring sharper skills. (TWW communications director, Toby Ziegler: “I’m tired of being field captain for the gang who couldn’t shoot straight!”) Obama may have set out to “raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy” (TWW chief of staff, Leo McGarry), but he has presumably faced a reckoning with himself over the past six months over why he is there, and what he thinks he can achieve, given another four years.

Obama, like Bartlet, has demonstrated that a great president can be terrible at politics; that skill in the policy arena can preclude skill in the campaign arena. You could picture a horrified Toby or Josh watching Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, against a (gasp) human opponent, rather than the malevolent robot conjured in debate prep. (Recall the crop of “moderate” and reasonable Republicans written by Sorkin.) Following a rough first term and reelection campaign derailed by too much political strategizing, Bartlet asked his chief of staff, “What are we doing?” Someone might well have asked Obama the same question after his failing to show up to the first debate, conviction curiously absent from his responses. His apathy was handily offset by the visceral conviction of Biden last Thursday, who demonstrated Sorkin-like rapid-fire retorts to Paul Ryan and rebooted the stunted campaign just in time for the fourth quarter. I believe that what we’ll find out in November is whether a good man can get elected president twice.

Janet Manley lives in New York and can outwalk the best of them. She tends to croissant and Twitter habits. For solicited commentary on the state of open-toed boots, contact her via her website.