Counteracting The New Yorker's Obama Cover

When Democratic strategist Mark Siegel first saw this week's New Yorker cover with Barack Obama in Muslim garb and wife, Michelle, with a huge afro looking like '60s Black Panther activist Angela Davis, he could imagine a million of the satirical images distributed on flyers around the country. This would not be good for a presidential candidate just now introducing himself to a whole new set of voters who didn't participate in the Democratic primaries, and who have heard little about him beyond the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

It's not The New Yorker's job to elect Obama. Still, what were they thinking? The cartoon cover image pictures the Obamas in the Oval Office with a framed portrait of Osama bin Laden over the mantel and an American flag burning in the fireplace. If these same depictions appeared on a white supremacist site, the FBI and the Secret Service would monitor the purveyors. If a conservative magazine like The National Review or The Weekly Standard put these images on their cover, we'd all be outraged, and rightfully so.

The New Yorker expects all of us sophisticates to understand they're poking fun at the politics of fear. A banner headline across the cover saying just that might have lent some clarity to the exercise. Without it, even people familiar with The New Yorker's satirical sensibility were offended. One reader shared with me this e-mail that she fired off to "Your embarrassing attempt at satire is disgraceful in this climate of fear and ignorance. There is no journalistic freedom to justify this cartoon that could have easily been generated by the merchants of hate and fear and will certainly be used by them to justify their own moronic diatribes against this most American family. Shame on you New Yorker for this blatant attention grabbing exercise!"

The Obama campaign called the cover tasteless (and so did John McCain, to his credit). The people complaining in droves to The New Yorker are not all hothouse flowers that wither easily. The problem is not just that the cartoons themselves are racist and tasteless, but they're spreading images that are untrue and deepening a perception that Obama is not what he says he is. Asked about the episode on CNN's "Larry King Live," Obama reminded the audience these are, after all, just cartoons. He lamented the fact that they are derogatory not just to himself and his wife but to Muslims, whose religion is presumed to be a negative when he has to continually reassert that he's a Christian. A survey released this week conducted by the Pew Research Center finds the notion Obama is a Muslim "bipartisan and enduring." Equal percentages of Republicans and Democrats (12 percent in each party), believe he is a Muslim, with Democrats who hold the belief significantly less likely to vote for Obama.

The reason Obama is ahead by only a handful of points in a political environment poisonous for Republicans is because of lingering concern over his "exotic" (that's the code word) name and background. Is the burden now on The New Yorker to publish an equally outrageous cover about McCain? Two wrongs don't make a right, but in politics and media, we care about balance, or at least we pretend we do. Democratic strategist Siegel proposes an image of McCain hooked up to tubes with the Oval Office converted into an assisted-living facility. We agree it isn't very funny. Besides, Democrats don't want to go too far down the equal-time road, not with three network anchors accompanying Obama on his trip abroad. The anchors don't go anywhere with McCain.

There's only one way that McCain can win in November and that's to make the election a referendum on Obama. The Republicans are trying to write the narrative that Obama has no core beliefs, that he's a flip-flopper and we don't know what he stands for. That storyline defeated John Kerry in 2004. The only way it will work with Obama is if the GOP can link it to the elitism that Hillary Clinton exploited in the primaries. Obama's vulnerability is not his inexperience; it's that he's too different to understand "people like me." The benign version is that he's a black guy who went to a fancy prep school, attended Harvard, has a funny name and is too persnickety to enjoy fast food. The New Yorker cover advances the virulent version of Obama as a closet radical with dangerous associations. It goes beyond satire to perpetuate the most problematic aspect of Obama's candidacy; that he's not in touch with people's fundamental values.

Let's hope this is the silly season and the voters will exercise better judgment than The New Yorker. Obama's greatest strength is his ability to move people. As Europeans clamor to get a glimpse of Obama on his trip next week, voters at home watching those images will realize that much of the damage George W. Bush has done to America's standing around the world would vanish the moment Obama put his hand on the Bible and was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.