Bartlet’s First Term: Graphed

Just how beloved was President Bartlet? What was his approval rating, and how did it stack up against real-life Commanders in Chief?

First, let’s look at the average of the data. President Bartlet is portrayed as a relatively popular President. I expected this to mean that his average approval rating would be relatively high compared to past Presidents. Instead, his rank is right in the middle – out of the last 13 Presidents, Bartlet ranks 7th in overall average approval:


  1. Kennedy (70.1)
  2. Eisenhower (65)
  3. G.H.W. Bush (60.9)
  4. Clinton (55.1)
  5. Johnson (55.1)
  6. Reagan (52.8)
  7. Bartlet (50.7)
  8. G.W Bush (49.4)
  9. Nixon (49.1)
  10. Obama (49)
  11. Ford (47.2)
  12. Carter (45.5)
  13. Truman (45.4)

Next, I looked at “Highest Approval Rating” and “Lowest Approval Rating.” I expected that President Bartlet would have greater extremes than real Presidents. After all, “The West Wing” is a fictionalized drama, and you can’t have drama without, well, drama.

Highest Approval Rating Reached: Lowest Approval Rating Reached:
  1. G.W. Bush
  2. G.H.W. Bush
  3. Truman
  4. Kennedy
  5. Bartlet
  6. Eisenhower
  7. Johnson
  8. Carter
  9. Clinton
  10. Ford
  11. Obama
  12. Reagan
  13. Nixon
  1. Truman
  2. Nixon
  3. G.W. Bush
  4. Carter
  5. G.H.W. Bush
  6. Reagan
  7. Johnson
  8. Ford
  9. Clinton
  10. Obama
  11. Bartlet
  12. Eisenhower
  13. Kennedy

His high (81) is pretty high, second only to both of the Bush Presidents in the last few decades. It’s a little questionable whether or not the assassination attempt would really have resulted in a spike that large. The plot line is likely modeled after the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981 – which only resulted in a modest bump (6 or 7 points), not the 30 point bump that Bartlet received. Of course, there’s one key difference – the motivation for the Reagan shooting was a lone crazy person, so would be less likely to resonate with the general population. The Bartlet shooting, on the other hand, had a clear political and racial motivation – when it comes to Bartlet v. the KKK, people might feel much more inclined to change their opinion.

Bartlet’s low, on the other hand, is relatively high – his lowest approval rating was only 41, higher than all except for Eisenhower and Kennedy, both exceedingly popular Presidents. From this data, it strikes me that the show is overly optimistic about Bartlet’s recovery after a major personal scandal like the MS announcement. The Season 2 Premiere “Manchester” states that his approval dropped down to 41, and it’s stated that it went up slowly from there in “Manchester (Part 2).”

Looking at other recent Presidents, I find it hard to believe that a major scandal like that would only bring the approval down to 41 – Presidents Obama, Clinton and G.W. Bush have all dipped below that number at one point or another, and despite Bartlet’s overall popularity, there’s no reason to believe this scandal would not have affected him worse than portrayed.

One last thing I wanted to focus on was the relative “Controversy” of different Presidents – what’s the difference between the “Highest” and “Lowest.”

  1. G.W Bush (65)
  2. Truman
  3. G.H.W Bush
  4. Carter
  5. Johnson
  6. Nixon
  7. Bartlet (40)
  8. Clinton
  9. Ford
  10. Reagan
  11. Eisenhower
  12. Obama
  13. Kennedy (27)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, G.W. Bush is the most controversial President of the last few decades – his high immediately after the September 11th attack is the highest approval of any President on the list. His lowest, towards the end of his time in office, is also one of the lowest total approval ratings.

Bartlet, on the other hand, is a middle-of-the-road President from the standpoint of controversy – his upper/lower spread of 40 is right in the middle. This is somewhat surprising given the somewhat crazy things that happened during the Bartlet first term, one would expect that his highs and lows would put him in the more extreme category.

So what does all this say about The West Wing? My expectation going into this was that a fictional President like Bartlet would be more “dramatic” than the real thing. In reality, his numbers were relatively staid and moderate. The truth, it turns out, is more dramatic than drama. That said, there’s a lot of data out there to look at, so please sound off in the comments.

13 Comments on “Bartlet’s First Term: Graphed”

  1. Chris #

    Given how early in Reagan’s term his assassination attempt took place and how high his ratings were when it happened make is a particularly good test case to gauge how big a bump should be expected for an assassination attempt. There is an upper limit to how high approval ratings can go and Reagan was already pretty close to there during his first few months in office. Thus, I don’t think the huge bump Bartlet received to be that unreasonable given how low they were when it happened.


  2. James #

    Actually, the 3 month drop is consistent with ideology in the US. Once the media-storm dies down and sympathy fades, (which happens very quickly in the US) the “14 weeks” path makes a lot more sense.

    I believe CJ warned that number was false and would “Drop Quickly”, too.


  3. Lavanya #

    It’s weird that he doesn’t take a major hit for his MS cover-up. Imagine if Bush 43 or Obama had a health scandal of that magnitude. The press on the opposite side of the political spectrum would eat them alive! But there’s probably two reasons for that, I figure.

    First, IMO, it’s because Sorkin meant the MS thing to be a wholly defensible version of the various Clinton scandals that plagued the Presidency in the 90s, as various characters reference FDR’s own secret medical problem, implicitly giving Bartlet cover. His poll numbers don’t fall so much because it’s not meant to be an immoral scandal.

    Second, it’s because Bartlet’s *first term is very much a meditation on the politics and political culture of the 1980s and 1990s, and don’t reflect the relentless partisanship of the 2000s and 2010s. Which, to be fair, only really solidified in the fiery lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the episode with Barlet’s reelection came a little before then. So his first term couldn’t meditate on what didn’t quite exist yet.

    * His second term isn’t much different, I feel, and has no such excuse for its then-outdated sensibility. TWW is a great piece of dramatic fiction, but it never really adapted to the post-9/11 world very well. It always seemed to exist in a world where the American political culture never suffered the extreme polarization of the 2000s and 2010s… or, y’know, a major terrorist attack and two unpopular wars.


    • JosephFM #

      “has no such excuse for its then-outdated sensibility”

      Well, it’s excuse is that it became a wish-fulfillment escapist fantasy for the kind of moderate-white-liberal types who by then had Clinton nostalgia.


      • Lavanya #

        Fair point. It was wrong of me to completely backhand escapism.


      • brutony #

        Exactly, JosephFM-this show was just a fantasy version of a Clinton Presidency without the “pesky” Fox News, Monica scandals, Whitewater and rape accusations, and with no terrorism threat!


        • Josiah Bartlet #

          Actually, this show was produced years before Hillary Clinton ever announced their candidacy for president, so there is no way that this was “a fantasy version of a Clinton presidency,” unless Aaron Sorkin was able to see the future. The last episode of the west wing ran in september of 2005, and Hillary Clinton ran for president the first time in the 2008 election, and then running again in the 2016 election, where she became the democratic nominee for president.


    • Three-nineteen #

      It could be the difference between a personal scandal and a job performance perception. Clinton’s low comes early in his presidency; the scandal that plagued his second term didn’t affect his rating much. GW Bush’s approval is lowest at the end of his second term – he didn’t do anything wrong personally then. His rating seems to reflect how people thought the country was faring under his watch.


  4. JosephFM #

    The “underthink” on this is that it really demonstrates that the writers had only a shaky grasp of the numbers on a historical scale, with the range in the series based more on their recent experience with Clinton and W than on realistic numbers.


  5. josh #

    If it helps I seem to recall a couple of approval ratings mentions in the later reasons. I’m pretty sure they reference Bartlet’s approval rating during his daughter’s kidnapping and the downturn it takes when the government gets shut
    down. They also refer to it being in the 60s during the presidential campaign to elect his successor.


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