Lyman, of course, is the measured, discerning but tough commander-in-chief in the classic 1964 Cold War thriller Seven Days in May. That president, played by Fredric March, outsmarts the generals who are plotting a military takeover of the U.S. government.
Characters like him help raise expectations by molding a popular ideal of what a president should look and sound like, authorities said.
If only Obama could fly an F/A-18 Hornet. Or Romney knew karate.
On screen, President James Marshall, portrayed by Harrison Ford, fights terrorists hand-to-hand in the movie Air Force One. President Thomas Whitmore, depicted by Bill Pullman, goes farther in Independence Day, hopping into the seat of a fighter jet to battle an invasion of flying saucers.
"If all our presidents were as good at giving a speech and rallying the troops as Bill Pullman, presidents would get a lot more done," said Ed Uravic, a former Republican campaign manager and Washington lobbyist who now teaches at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. "Watching the presidents on the silver screen makes us hopeful of a better government and a better way of life for ourselves, but it doesn't translate into real life."
Why not? For one thing, while contenders for the Oval Office are, or should be, well-practiced and rehearsed for debatelike events, they still operate in a world of changing circumstances. They don't have a script. In a live debate, if a candidate smiles too much, or offhandedly glances at his watch, that's what people remember.
The fictional presidents don't startle or stammer. They're word-perfect eloquent. Sometimes they're even female.
Shira Tarrant, an expert on gender and sexual politics, points out that the screen is the only place the country has ever had a woman president. That's frustrating, she said, given that other industrialized nations commonly choose female heads of state. On the plus side, she said, having a female president on screen can normalize that perception for voters.
"Film definitely offers a safe way for an electorate to consider the idea of a woman president," said Tarrant, whose books include Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power.
All politicians recognize that politics is theater, but some have made better use of its trappings than others. John F. Kennedy turned the give-and-take of his news conferences into must-see TV. Ronald Reagan, a former actor, used the props and settings of power to communicate.
But he, like all real-life presidents, faced the obstacle of an opposition party, particularly difficult in this era of an entrenched divide between Democrats and Republicans.
"Movie presidents have all the power in the world, make exciting decisions. The reality of Washington is gridlock," said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, a leading presidential scholar and the author of books on Presidents Jimmy Carter, Reagan, and George W. Bush. "That makes you much less heroic, much more pragmatic."
Among U.S. presidents, only five consistently rank at the top in a poll of leading presidential scholars: Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt, as measured by the Siena Research Institute at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., which has been surveying scholars since 1982.
On TV and in the movies, all presidents are great.
President Tom Beck, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, thoughtfully, patiently helps save the world from destruction by comet in Deep Impact. President Mackenzie Allen, otherwise known as Geena Davis, dealt with Congress, and sexism, in the TV show Commander in Chief. The best make-believe president may be Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen on The West Wing.
"Bartlet was always the smartest guy in the room, but he never presumed he was," said Harrisburg attorney Scott Foulkrod, who teaches law at Harrisburg University. "He had interpersonal skills, could be both gentle and firm, had the mind of a philosopher and a Nobel Prize in economics. . . .
"We can choose all the qualities we would like to see in our president when we create the character. But we can't do that in the candidates who run in the real world."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.