Fictional US presidents: rated by a political expert
Spoiler: all of these would do a better job than Trump
It still seems strange every time you see the words ‘President Donald Trump’ but, if you’re not a fan of Orange Don, don’t despair, because there’ll be a new one along in either three years (if the opinion polls are to be believed), seven years (if the polls are, yet again, wrong) or maybe even sooner (if the mid-terms go badly and a few more people inform about the Ruskies).
But, for the meantime, we’re stuck with him, so join us as we dare to dream about alternate presidents - those leaders that we’ve seen on the big and small screens over the years.
David Litt is a former speech-writer to president Obama, so a perfect person to run his eye over those fictional presidents, to see if they’d actually be up to the top job. Spoiler: they’re all better than Trump.
1. US President, Love Actually
The gist: Billy Bob Thornton’s president is sexually inappropriate with a No10 junior staffer and reprimanded in a press conference by the PM (Hugh Grant).
The verdict: “I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he was found saying some truly disgusting things on an Access Hollywood tape. He hits closer to home now for most Americans than he did when the movie came out. Public figures don’t usually display shame in public, so [the PM’s scolding of the president] was more of a fantasy about how international relations would work.”
2. Selina Meyer, Veep
The gist: The US’s first female president, Meyer is embroiled in a data breach scandal, survives a twin assassination attempt and leaves a legacy as one of the worst presidents in history.
The verdict: “In the Obama White House, everybody loved Veep. The difference between Veep and the Obama White House is that the characters in Veep are less confident and more cynical. The thing I love about Meyer is that she’s driven by a hunger for power, but there’s something about her that makes you root for her. That ability to win us over despite having real issues – not every president has that.”
3. Merkin Muffley, Dr Strangelove
The gist: Attempting to placate the warmongers, Muffley is the voice of reason advocating for diplomacy.
The verdict: “To some extent, Dr Strangelove is about the way events can take on a life of their own. Muffley is an average president who finds himself less in control of events than he thought. And every president discovers that they have less control over the course of history than they imagined. Often, presidents do need to go to war, but caution and thoughtfulness are good qualities; and understanding in a nuclear age that no one will win a nuclear war.”
4. President Camacho, Idiocracy
The gist: President in 2505, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho has a background in wrestling and porn. Though he wildly overpromises, he does appoint an intelligent adviser.
The verdict: “A president who is far better at getting attention than actually being president – who could imagine such a thing? There’s more power than ever in people who can just be entertaining and get on TV. President Camacho is a good example. To give the guy a little bit of credit, hiring people who are good at their jobs is essential to a successful presidency.”
5. David Palmer, 24
The gist: Palmer is a charismatic president who believes in telling the truth, however uncomfortable that may be, and plays a pivotal role in disrupting several terrorist plots.
The verdict: “24 was, in a lot of ways, a show about the Bush administration’s war on terror. Despite having a conservative lean it was very pro-government. It’s easy to say presidents should always tell the truth, but it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes disclosing the truth is a risk to national security. What matters is the lies they tell themselves. You want a president with a bias towards seeking the truth.”
6. Dave Kovic, Dave
The gist: After the real president falls into a coma, Kovic impersonates him and wins popularity by – among other things – visiting a homeless shelter and promising a job to every American.
The verdict: “The idea that a president can coast purely on being able to perform in public while having no idea what they’re doing in private is just a fun movie idea. There’s something charmingly democratic about it: that anybody could be president if they happened to end up in the job. Sooner or later they have to rise to the occasion, and that will shape the way they’re perceived.”
7. Jack Stanton, Primary Colours
The gist: Though he is ultimately successful, Stanton has a chequered journey to the White House, including digging dirt on opposition candidates and being accused of womanising.
The verdict: “The only thing I knew about this film when it was released was that it was based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, but these stories seem almost tame compared to politics today. We’re going through a long-overdue sea change when it comes to the personal behaviour of industry leaders. We’re realising this is part of a pattern of powerful people abusing their power.”
8. James Marshall, Air Force One
The gist: A Vietnam war vet who foils a terrorist takeover of the presidential fleet, Marshall kills several hijackers and prevents the plane being shot down.
The verdict: “There’s an enjoyable idea that presidents can go it alone. This is a movie about that fantasy becoming reality. It’s better for all of us that it never could. One of the qualities he has that you’d want in a real-life president is calmness in a crisis. If a president is easily distracted, they’re not going to do a great job – even if their plane is international-criminal-free.”
9. James Dale, Mars Attacks!
The gist: After Martians invade Earth, Dale believes the aliens come in peace – despite them killing large numbers of people at every opportunity.
The verdict: “Presidents need to be principled, but they can’t be dogmatic. That’s a tough balance to get right. In this case, you’re talking about a president so committed to a peaceful solution that he doesn’t realise they clearly have no interest in coming in peace – he’s so blinded by ideology that he doesn’t adjust to the circumstances. It’s a risk presidents face, and it’s a common thread among presidents who haven’t been up to the job.”
10. Richard Nixon’s head, Futurama
The gist: President of Earth in the 31st century, Nixon’s floating head claims to want to sell children’s organs to zoos and calls the average voter “as drunk and stupid as ever”.
The verdict: “Futurama called it on the return to Nixonian politics. We like to imagine that presidents assume that voters are easily manipulated, but successful leaders respect the intelligence of voters. Nixon’s head’s approval ratings would not be super-high.”
The New York Times bestselling memoir Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years is out now