The recent United States presidential election, and the new administration which has emerged as a result, has shaken global opinions of the American political system and the kind of people capable of being elected to its highest office.
As the leader of the world’s third most populous country and the Commander-in-Chief of the largest military, the US President should be someone who is resilient, smart, amiable, and passionate about making a difference. They must also be able to adapt to rapidly changing situations and unexpected events, while remaining calm, considering all options, and not immediately resorting to extremes.
These qualities are even more important when such unexpected situations may include crash-landing in the Finnish woods, an accidentally ordered nuclear attack, or alien invasion. We can only hope the man now sitting in the Oval Office doesn’t end up in any of these situations, but they’ve all happened to fictional Presidents on the big or small screen.
Yes, with it being one of the most important jobs in the world, the American Presidency has been used in many films and TV series, including action thrillers, sci-fi blockbusters, serious political dramas, and even a romantic comedy or two. These characters have been inspirational and often heightened takes on what their creators would like to see in a political leader, and so the sixteen Presidents listed here are all figures we can imagine winning over the public.
16 Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) — Designated Survivor
The show Designated Survivor sees 24 star Kiefer Sutherland play another President who doesn’t ask for power but has it thrust upon him. He’s the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, but when he’s chosen to be the cabinet member not present at the State of the Union address, which is then the target of a terrorist attack, he ends up as the first person alive in the chain of command.
Despite this unusual and very stressful set of circumstances, Kirkman, a registered Independent, soon adjusts to his new job. He overcomes everything thrown at him as he deals with several crises including a challenge to civil rights, all while trying to find the truth behind the bombing.
Blending the thriller and political drama genres neatly, Designated Survivor had one of the stronger debut seasons of last year, and we look forward to seeing how President Kirkman deals with the challenges ahead of him.
15 Constance Peyton (Alfre Woodard) — State of Affairs
NBC’s political espionage series may have been cancelled after one season, having put off many viewers with its dour and humourless tone, but the highlight of State of Affairs was undoubtedly Alfre Woodard’s excellent performance as President Constance Peyton.
Peyton, whose experience as both a Senator and an Air Force pilot would tick many voters’ boxes, works closely with Katherine Heigl’s CIA analyst Charlie Tucker to prevent conflicts; they deal with violent extremists on American soil and abroad, including Columbian rebels and African extremist group Boko Haram. She also narrowly avoids conflict with Russia over a data hack – a storyline that seems all the more topical today. And all this while coping with the death of her son during his military service in Afghanistan.
It’s no wonder Peyton is smart, strong, and doesn’t let anything stop her — after all, being the first African American woman to be elected President would be no easy task.
14 Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) — Commander in Chief
Like Designated Survivor’s Kirkland, Geena Davis’ President Mackenzie Allen is an Independent, albeit one who’d been elected Vice President, who inherits the Oval Office on the event of the President’s death.
However, Commander-in-Chief, which aired for just one season on ABC between 2005 and 2006, explores the particular challenges that would be faced by the first female President, including dissent from misogynist politicians within the administration she takes control of. Allen overcomes these challenges thanks to a strong leadership style, which also helps her deal with numerous international crises.
On the other hand, the show did attract some controversies, with ABC having to apologize after unfairly depicting Hyattsville, Maryland as having a fast-growing crime rate, and with people criticizing the show’s very concept for suggesting a woman could only become President by having the existing President die in office. Nevertheless, by the end of the season, Allen had proven herself as a dedicated and shrewd leader.
13 Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) — The West Wing
Perhaps the defining show in terms of depicting life inside the White House, The West Wing also gave us Aaron Sorkin’s idea of the perfect President.
Throughout his two terms in office, which spanned seven seasons of the show, Bartlet brokered international peace treaties, reformed social security, and created millions of new jobs. He made a major faux pas when, in the series’ most touching storyline, he failed to disclose his multiple sclerosis diagnosis to the public, but won back enough support to win reelection anyway.
As well as his policies, it’s his layered personality which makes Bartlet such an idol; one real-life White House press secretary described the character as possessing "the compassion and integrity of Jimmy Carter... that shrewd decision-making and hard-nosed realism of a Richard Nixon... the warmth and amiability and the throw-the-arm-around-the-shoulder of a Bill Clinton; and... the liberal passion of a Teddy Kennedy."
12 Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) — Deep Impact
The imminent destruction of Earth by a 7-mile-wide meteor is a challenge that would test any President’s approval ratings, and having to take charge of a project to select the million Americans who get to survive in the underground shelters would severely put a dent in your popularity, especially among the ‘people who are doomed to die in the apocalypse’ demographic.
But if anyone has to do it, Morgan Freeman’s probably the one. It’s no surprise that the actor is consistently cast in roles of authority, having also played a Vice President, Nelson Mandela, and God. His statesmanlike demeanour and calm but authoritative tones are exactly what’s needed in a time of extreme crisis.
Simultaneously preparing American society for the worst case outcome while working with other countries to stop the meteor, President Beck showed himself to be a true leader. We have to wonder how many real life Presidents would have dealt with this extraordinary situation.
11 Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) – House of Cards
Okay, so we can’t justify voting for him, but Frank Underwood has managed to manipulate his way into this list, the Machiavellian schemer that he is.
Based on a British series from 1990, House of Cards was one of Netflix’s first big success stories, and this role won Kevin Spacey a Golden Globe. Across the four seasons released to date, the sociopathic Underwood has lied, cheated, and blackmailed his way up the ladder of government, starting as Democratic Majority Whip before becoming Vice President.
With the assistance of his equally amoral wife Claire, he then engineered the downfall of the President, allowing him to take the top job himself. He later campaigned for reelection, but was last seen in trouble due to his possible impeachment. But Underwood could still find a way out of this, as he’s willing to do anything in pursuit of power, having even strangled a dog and personally committed murder twice – but hey, at least he’s not used a private email server.
10 William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) – Big Game
This daft but enjoyable action movie sees Air Force One crash in the woods of Finland, leaving Samuel L. Jackson’s President Moore stranded on his own – not a situation a President should end up in. He finds an ally not in a Secret Service agent but in a young boy, Oskari, who helps him escape the people trying to kill him.
As the unlikely duo trek through the woods together, Moore bonds with the disillusioned young boy and helps him build up his confidence. Together they also halt a conspiracy to bring about a new war on terror.
We may not see how good a politician he is when it comes to anything remotely resembling the passing of legislation, but Moore certainly proves himself good in a crisis, and the way he inspires Oskari proves that he is a strong role model and a good-hearted President. Plus, who wouldn’t vote for Samuel L. Jackson?
9 Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) – Dave
Ivan Reitman’s political comedy saw Kevin Kline play a double role — as the dislikable, sleazy President Bill Mitchell, and as the much more pleasant employment agent Dave Kovic, who happens to do some work on the side as a President Mitchell impersonator.
When Mitchell falls into a coma, scheming politicians bring in Kovic to surreptitiously replace him, in order to prevent panic and be someone they can manipulate. But Kovic’s having none of that, and soon his down to earth nature and willingness to look out for the little man help him balance the budget, provide jobs for Americans in need, and support shelters for the homeless.
The means by which he came to power may be thoroughly unconstitutional, but Kovic somehow proved to be a much better leader than the one who was elected. It’s evidence in favour of the Douglas Adams quote that those who want power are often the ones least suited to wield it.
8 Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) — The American President
Writer Aaron Sorkin became well known for creating The West Wing, but before that, came up with another fictional Commander-in-Chief for this political romantic comedy — a very niche genre, admittedly.
Michael Douglas’s President Shepherd is planning to sign a moderate crime bill — one that will neither seriously impress nor seriously annoy anyone – in order to secure reelection. He’s also the first bachelor in the White House, and is striking up a relationship with environmental activist Sydney Allen Wade.
Though he nearly loses everything, it’s Shepherd’s decision to change tack, stand up for his principles and fight for a better America that wins him the girl. Not only is he a smart political thinker — well, he does have Sorkin’s dialogue to go from — but he surrounds himself with caring, compassionate people and allows them to turn him into a better person, and a better President who’d have our support.
7 James Marshall (Harrison Ford) — Air Force One
Returning from a visit to Moscow, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists, who take everyone on board captive, including the President’s wife and daughter. In this situation, many of the other Presidents on this list, not to mention all of the real life Presidents, would wait for the CIA or some other agency to rescue them.
But not James Marshall. Relying on his old military training, Marshall refuses to give in to his attackers’ demands and instead takes them out one by one. He rescues the hostages and even quips “get off my plane” as he ejects the terrorist leader.
OK, to be honest, while Marshall’s hardline stance on terrorism would please many voters, the ability to personally kill terrorists shouldn’t really be a top priority when choosing who to vote for. But in that specific unlikely situation, everyone else on the plane was very lucky the American people had chosen Marshall.
6 Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) — Independence Day
When the aliens come to subjugate humanity, Earth is going to need leaders who can unite the planet against its oppressors. It would also be helpful if they could fly a fighter plane. Thankfully, Independence Day’s Thomas J. Whitmore fulfilled those criteria.
A former military man, Whitmore didn’t hesitate when it came to evacuating America’s cities and taking charge of the resistance efforts — even carrying on after the death of his wife. He’s also to be commended for his collaboration with the scientific community, proving himself open to unusual new ideas.
Whitmore also possessed that quality which defined many great Presidents — he was a talented public speaker, and his “today we celebrate our Independence Day” speech was one for the history books. He kept doing his best for the people of Earth even after leaving office, as he helped save the planet a second time when the aliens returned in last year’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
5 Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) — Head of State
In this 2003 Chris Rock comedy, cynical Democrat politicians decide the party doesn’t stand a chance at the 2004 election, and so put Mays Gilliam forward as their first African American candidate, surprising everyone, including Gilliam himself.
Their real aim is to earn support by looking progressive and so improve their chances come the next election – a plot device inspired by 1984 Democratic candidate Walter Mondale choosing a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate, knowing he stood little chance against incumbent Ronald Reagan. However, after being persuaded to speak out for his beliefs, Gilliam manages to build up an incredible amount of support. Despite a strong opposition candidate and some bizarre attack ads against him, he goes on to win the presidency.
It may be a zany comedy, but Head of State gave us a progressive and passionate President, as well as showing us the election of the first black President four years before real life America reached that milestone.
4 Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) — Dr. Strangelove
We’re not going to deny that Merkin Muffley’s on-screen political career is characterized by a spectacular failure. In the 1964 film, as one Air Force Brigadier General goes off the rails and orders his planes to drop nukes on Russia, President Muffley struggles to control events from the war room, and things spiral out of control when Russia’s development of a so-called ‘doomsday device’ is revealed.
And yet Muffley is one of the few people in the room who doesn’t use this as an excuse to escalate a war against America’s Cold War enemy, instead aiming to find the best solution for the security of the whole world. His demeanour when speaking to enemy leaders is gentle and considerate, and in no way reactionary.
Though he may not have been able to save the day in that situation, he at least kept the apocalypse at bay for longer than if George C. Scott’s trigger-happy General Buck Turgidson had got his way. Muffley’s calm and considerate personality is a good quality to have in a world leader.
3 David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) — 24
You have to be tough in order to survive as President in the world of 24, in which there’s always another potential assassin around the corner and Jack Bauer is always ready to get in your face. Thankfully, President David Palmer was tough enough.
Palmer constantly co-operated with the Counter Terrorist Unit as he survived a deadly virus and a conspiracy to overthrow him. Even though his determination to do a good job resulted in his wife and several friends leaving him, Palmer stood his ground, being a strong and respectable leader.
Palmer’s influence may have spread further than the fictional America of 24; political analysts have noted that the presence of a strong African American President in popular TV during the early 2000s may have made the American public more comfortable with the idea of a black man in the Oval Office and thus helped out Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
2 James Dale (Jack Nicholson) — Mars Attacks!
Like Tom Beck, President James Dale faced an unprecedented force from outer space that threatened to wipe out humanity, and this is one that had the leaders of planet Earth as high-priority targets.
Dale was a rigid and shrewd leader who did all he could against the relentless alien invasion, consulting with military and scientific advisors to find the best solution. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a challenge he wasn’t able to repel; after replacing the faces on Mount Rushmore with their own, the Martians cornered Dale in his bunker and killed him.
But before his death, Dale gave a final impassioned speech calling for peace and co-operation between planets, asking the Martians: “Why destroy when we can create? We can have it all or we can smash it all? Why can’t we work out our differences?” A powerful sentiment, but it’s just a shame that these Martians didn’t agree.
1 Douglass Dilman (James Earl Jones) — The Man
This 1972 movie saw a black president take office 37 years before real life, which unsurprisingly leads to President Dilman facing conflict with other politicians who aren’t too happy about having him as their boss.
The Man isn’t optimistic enough, however, to suggest that a black man could be elected as President — when the sitting President and the Speaker of the House are killed in an accident, and the Vice President discloses a terminal illness, Douglass Dilman — played by James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader — is next in line for the job. Though initially unsteady, he has to toughen up in order to deal with a cabinet member who wants to oust him and an international assassination attempt. He soon finds his own voice and wins support by condemning racist violence.
President Dilman may not have been elected to office, but he’d certainly be a good choice if he did run in any election. The end of the film implies that he goes on to campaign for an elected term, and for the people of that fictional world, we hope that he won it.