What’s Next: When ‘The West Wing’ Foreshadowed Obama’s Era

In the wake of a truly terrifying and shocking election campaign, inauguration, and first month in office, it’s good for the soul to take a step back in time and remember the good political days – albeit, some may be fictional. The West Wing, a political TV show and/or seven season long masterpiece, encaptures the idealistic political sphere that the founding fathers prescribed when penning the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, Google Trends has discovered a rise in searches of the show in recent months. The interest peaked during two months – Trump’s election in November 2016 and his inauguration in January 2017. While the show distracts us from our current political landscape, it also reminds us of another time in America’s political history: the Obama-Biden chapter.

The West Wing’s seventh season, in its unending brilliance, foreshadowed one of the most iconic elections in American history the 2008 Obama-McCain campaign. For those who aren’t ready to say a complete goodbye to President Obama or just want to forget about the real-life political chaos we currently are witnessing, we can take a stroll down memory lane to Obama’s introduction to the United States.

For those who are unfamiliar with the show, the plot lines follow President Jed Bartlet and his senior staff through his two-term presidency through a health cover-up, kidnapping, and Republican-held Congress. In season seven, the show shifted gears to introduce the next election, following the campaign primarily from the Democratic candidate’s view, but oftentimes lending the light to humanize and understand the Republican candidate.

The 2008 campaign was historic for many obvious reasons, including the unprecedented use of social media to communicate and motivate voters who typically didn’t turn out for Election Day to the polls. The campaign is more well known for the unlikely candidates brought forth from each party. While slightly ahead of the 2008 election (the show ended in 2006), The West Wing elections can be eerily connected by their presidential candidates.

As he geared up to run in 2008, Barack Obama was relatively unknown in the political world, similar to Matt Santos, who was relatively unknown until he won the Democratic primary in an stunning turn of edge-of-your-seat events. Obama put himself on the map a few years earlier with an impassioned speech at the Democratic Convention, but entered the race with only a few years in Congress under his belt. Santos, who was portrayed by Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits, was also a newer Congressman with only three terms at the House before being persuaded to run for office by the boyish Josh Lyman.

Obama’s race played a large role in the election, not only for the historical impact of America’s first non-white male candidate, but for eliciting votes from demographics that previously didn’t turn out on Election Day. While his roots were questioned (looking at you and the “birther” issue, Trump), Obama won the election with a significant portion of the Electoral College. In The West Wing, Matt Santos distanced himself from being the “brown” candidate; instead, he wanted to be the American candidate – a beautiful sentiment, but he’d regret not focusing on his own racial compatriots later in the campaign. While Santos did **spoiler** win the election, the victory can be attributed to a nuclear energy fiasco more than a sudden outpour of Latino votes.

President Obama was significantly younger than his Republican counterpart, and in fact was one of the youngest presidents in office when he entered at age 47. He also brought with him a kickass wife and two young daughters. Santos was similarly younger than his counterpart, Arnold Vinick by decades. Unlike Vinick, who had grandchildren, Santos was raising two children under the age of 13 years old. His youth and vigor was frequently brought up as the election wore on and Vinick’s health showed signs of flagging.

Santos and Obama faced a similar opponent in their respective elections. Obama, the newcomer to the ring, was positioned against a long-time Republican in Congress. McCain had several years of experience on Obama, decades of living, and no young children to be considered. Santos’ counterpart, Vinick, was similar in age, experience and lifestyle to McCain; however, Vinick was widowed in the series.

In both elections, the young underdog won the day. While Santos’ term(s) in office were not portrayed in the show (the final episode concluded with Santos taking the oath of office and sitting in the Oval Office), Obama’s eight years as president are well-documented and lauded. And while The West Wing portrayed an idealistic and hopeful vision of the presidency and the work that senior staff conduct, the fictional version is nothing compared to the landmark progression that Obama created in his two-terms.

Obama’s final day as president is behind us. Now, we must move forward with the depressing knowledge that our political system is not the fictional world that Aaron Sorkin wrote, or even the progressive, dad-joke-heavy Obama terms we’ve enjoyed over the past eight years. However, Sorkin is clearly not happy with our political leader either. We must rally or, as President Barlet said, (after he was shot and went through hours of surgery without, signing the 25th amendment paperwork which caused an unnecessary amount of grief later on), “What’s next?”

Kelly Morrison Menk

Kelly Morrison Menk

When not writing, Kelly works as a communications associate at a nonprofit in Washington, DC. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Mary Washington and Master's in Communication from George Mason University. She firmly believes that running daily allows her to continue her serious Coca-Cola addiction without repercussions (no, Pepsi is not the same). When she's not working or fighting horrible DC traffic, you can find her sleeping, eating or attempting to train her two pups.
Kelly Morrison Menk
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