Best Television Presidents To Ever Take Office On The Small Screen

The best TV presidents are in 24, Designated Survivor, and Veep.

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Television has long focused on political figures, both real and fictional, and the result is that we have had a series of TV presidents that were usually much more impressive than our actual elected officials. We’ve had so many that it can be difficult for television lovers to decide who is best. That’s where we come in: we’ve compiled the definitive list of the best presidents in television history, ranging from The West Wing to Veep and beyond.

7. Selina Meyer – Veep

At the beginning of Veep, Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus played the titular second-in-command to the commander-in-chief, but her Selina Meyer character eventually made it all the way to the top. Of course, the series is very satirical, so her character is less a paragon of important values and more a reflection of a nation crazy enough to elect her into office in the first place.

However, her character always came across as hilariously (sometimes even shockingly) human, and that’s certainly enough to make her one of the best TV presidents in media history and one that we simply never get tired of watching.

6. Fitzgerald Grant III – Scandal

We’ll mention this again, but actors don’t have to play good people to play good TV presidents, and that’s part of why we love Tony Goldwyn’s president in the series Scandal. As the name of the show implies, this president is constantly navigating one scandal after another, and we get an intimate look at the personal and professional dramas that threaten to undermine the leader of an entire nation.

And while it’s not always easy to like this particular character, the performance helps to underscore his vulnerability, making him the rare televised politician we could really relate to.

5. Laura Roslin – Battlestar Galactica

While Designated Survivor and Battlestar Galactica are two very different shows, each one has a president who attains power in a similar manner. In Galactica, Mary McDonell’s Laura Roslin is the highest-ranking member of the presidential cabinet to survive a deadly attack by the robotic Cylons that wipes out nearly all of humanity, leaving the remnants of humanity to wander the galaxy in search of a new planet to call home.

In the aftermath of the attack, she went from being a teacher-turned-politician into an amazing TV president whose strength and resilience helped guide humanity through what would otherwise have been an extinction-level event.

4. Tom Kirkman – Designated Survivor

It was a tad weird seeing Keifer Sutherland play the president in Designated Survivor after he worked so hard to save the president in 24. Then again, that was the point: his character is a low-level presidential cabinet member who only gets the big chair because everyone else is killed in a catastrophic attack.

But in playing a good man who never really wanted the job in the first place, his Tom Kirkman displayed the kind of dedication and compassion in rebuilding the nation that was needed to make him one of the best TV presidents we have ever seen. 

3. Frank Underwood – House Of Cards

kevin spacey

It’s possible to be one of the best TV presidents without being a good man, and Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a great example of this. We see him as a master manipulator whose Machiavellian tactics helped make him the most powerful person in the entire world.

And the show is very blunt about the fact that someone like him doesn’t really belong in office, which helps to highlight the evergreen message that those who work hardest to attain power over other people are usually the last ones who should ever have such power in the first place.

2. David Palmer – 24

24 was a rather intense television series, so it only makes sense that David Palmer ended up being one of the most intense TV presidents we have ever seen. Amid the breakneck pace of the show, in which every minute seemed to be a matter of life and death, this character (played perfectly by Dennis Haysbert) always served as a calm center around which our characters could rally.

He also provided a strong moral compass, and his integrity was vitally important in a show that often asked how much we would be willing to compromise on personal and even national safety.

1. Josiah “Jed” Bartlet – The West Wing

There is a reason that Martin Sheen’s Josiah “Jed” Barley on The West Wing is often considered the best TV president of all time: he’s the kind of president we dream of getting but who never makes it into the White House.

He could always be tough when he needed to be, and you could count on him to make the hard decisions when the time came, but he never let those difficult decisions define his character. The result is a small-screen national leader who is consistently compassionate and always uses his intelligence and empathy to do the most good for the most people.