After eight years in the White House, the legacy of the USA’s first African American president is still being debated and defined. Were the print media’s portrayals of him and his achievements accurate, or did they get it wrong?
Ex-US president Barack Obama featured on thousands of newspaper and magazine covers throughout his two terms in the White House. They have helped shape how he has been perceived by the general public. A selection of his best covers from his eight-year feature in a new illustrated book, ‘Obama: 101 Best Covers’, by author Ben Arogundade.
HIS RISE WAS METEORIC, his rhetoric compelling, his charisma mesmerising. The reality was always going to be a disappointment. Two years after vacating the Oval Office, the assessment of Barack Obama’s legacy, accomplishments and achievements are still being pondered over by writers and commentators around the world, particularly in light of the contrasting behaviour of his successor, Donald Trump.
OBAMA BOOK: 101 BEST COVERS
Perhaps the best indicator of the ongoing interest in Obama and his legacy is his presence on social media. He is number three in the world on Twitter, with a staggering 102 million followers — only music icons Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have more. Donald Trump trails with 54.5 million. On these extraordinary numbers, Obama may just be the most important statesman of all time.
My new book, Obama: 101 Best Covers, presents a visual narrative of how this all happened. There has never been a president in history that has straddled such a diversity of newspaper and magazine covers, from political and literary journals to hip-hop monthlies and comic books. Over the course of his two terms in the Oval Office the press presented Obama in a myriad of guises — as a feminist, a communist, a fashion model, a Jew, the Messiah, Superman, George Washington, President Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, a Muslim terrorist and the Hindu deity Lord Shiva.
OBAMA’S MANY FACES
These diverse portrayals may have actually worked in Obama’s favour in getting him elected. Part of his winning appeal lay within the fact that he is a ‘morph’ of different elements — part black, part white, part statesman, part hip hopper, part Sidney Poitier, part Al Green. Some Obama covers adopted this theme of blending different visual elements. The ‘New Statesman’ (October 12, 2009), and ‘The New Republic’ (March 2008), presented variations of Obama “face-melds”. The New Statesman created a fusion of the faces of Obama and George W. Bush. The ears are those of Bush, but the eyes are Obama’s, although the finished face resembles someone of Middle-Eastern origin. It could be Obama’s cousin or Bush’s long-lost brother. The ‘New Republic’s rendition, created by artist Nancy Burson, features a fifty-fifty blend of Obama and Hillary Clinton. The image is a striking blend of man and woman, of black and white. The synthesis is serene, youthful and androgynous. The eyes look almost East Asian, while the mouth appears to be smiling slightly, like a modern-day Mona Lisa.
THE OBAMAS AS TERRORISTS
The cover that generated most controversy during Barack Obama’s reign was the July 21, 2008 edition of ‘The New Yorker’. It featured a cartoon depicting the Obamas as terrorists within the White House. Barack is dressed in traditional Muslim clothing, while Michelle is rendered in Black-Panther-style fatigues, brandishing an AK-47. The pair exchange a “fist-bump” while an American flag burns in the fireplace beneath a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. The cover’s satirical intent was widely misinterpreted as an attack on the Obamas by the magazine. The edition made headlines hours after its release, and the negative reaction was such that editor David Remnick was forced to come out in its defence. “What I think it [the cover] does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s – both Obamas’ – past, and their politics,” he stated.
RACISM & THE BLACK PRESIDENT
The build-up to 2008 saw Obama cast by the press as both Superman and the Messiah. The cover of The ‘New Republic’s January 30 edition depicts him as a Christ-like figure within a stained glass window, complete with a Virgin Mary-style halo to enhance the air of sainthood. The Winter 2009 cover of ‘Ms’ features the president-elect as a feminist Superman, poised to champion the female cause. Such covers rendered Obama, not as president, but as saviour. Was it racist of the press to do this, knowing that he would never reach such lofty heights? The forty-three white presidents who came before Obama were not portrayed as superheroes in Spandex, so why do it to him? Because he was the first black president, expectations were higher — but was it fair to expect more of a president simply on the grounds of his ethnicity?
OBAMA VS TRUMP
Obama’s Messiah and Superman covers take their cues from religion and Hollywood. These themes have intensified with President Trump, who by contrast, has been depicted as both the anti-Christ and the Batman’s Joker on different covers. He is presented as the devil to Obama’s angel. In classic Hollywood disaster movie-style Obama was expected to save the world in 2008, whereas Trump is expected to destroy it any minute now.
As it became clear that Obama was not going to save the planet, predictably, the language on many front covers changed. The October 2012 edition of ‘The Spectator’ skilfully captures the end of the Obama honeymoon. The scene depicts a cartoon of the African American president as a caped Superman, only this time tumbling helplessly out of the sky toward death, his body suddenly mortal.
THE HEAVY LEGACY
The two covers that bookend Obama’s reign are his very first, for Black Enterprise magazine’s October 2004 edition, and the cover of the UK’s ‘OUT’ magazine of December 2015. Obama’s first cover shows him as a youthful smiling ideologue, unaware of what’s around the corner. ‘OUT’s cover, taken 11 years later, shows a very different man, weathered by two high pressure terms in office. His hair is now grey and thinned, his smile has lost its elasticity, his eyes are wiser but sadder. It is a reminder that there was a particular price to pay for being America’s first non-white Commander-in-Chief. African American comedian Chris Rock summed it up when he said, “Being the first black anything sucks.”
Ben Arogundade’s illustrated book, ‘Obama: 101 Best Covers’, features the ex-US president’s best front pages from his two terms in the White House, including these examples from ‘Black Enterprise’ and ‘OUT’.
Obama: 101 Best Covers
The story of former US President Barack Obama's eight years in the White House (2008-2016), told through 101 of his best newspaper and magazine front covers. Witness Obama depicted as a feminist, communist, model, Jew, Muslim terrorist, Messiah, Superman, George Washington, President Roosevelt, Julius Caesar and Hindu deity Lord Shiva. Get it now at Amazon.
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