The List  Compiled by Democracy in Action/Eric M. Appleman -- updated January 26, 2010.  Exhibit flyer.

The one-year anniversary of an administration offers a benchmark for observers to consider how the president and his team are doing.  Commentators, pundits and talking heads analyze everything from the president's leadership style and personal qualities to the concrete actions and accomplishments of the administration to how the media are covering the president and the administration.  Whole books are being written on President Obama's first year, and academics will engage in rigorous research into questions big and small on into the future. 

This survey examines how Obama1 has been portrayed on American2 magazine covers (national news, opinion and specialty magazines) during the first year of his administration.  Just as with first impressions of people, the first year of an administration can significantly shape our perceptions of the president.  In a November 2009 column Peggy Noonan observed, "The first year is when indelible impressions are made and iconic photos emerge."3 

The exhibit covers actually covers about 14 months from the transition period to the end of January 2010.  In a sense a president's tenure begins before he is even sworn in.4  During the transition the president-elect builds his team and lays the groundwork for implementing his policies.  After the initial series of "he won" covers—not considered here—magazines of all stripes offered their takes on the incoming president and administration, and there were also covers marking the Inauguration.  Expectations run high with any change of administration, but they may have been particularly high for Obama given the lofty rhetoric of his campaign.5  To cite just a few examples, both The Economist (11/8) and Time (1/26) had great expectations covers; New Yorker portrayed him as George Washington; Newsweek (12/8) ran a "How to Fix the World" cover with Obama; and In These Times (1/2009) pictured Obama lifting the world on his shoulders.  

Over the next twelve months the realities of governing in difficult times have set in.  The administration has grappled with the global economic crisis, pushed for health care reform, and pursued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama's governing philosophy and leadership style have become clearer.  By December 2009 and January 2010 doubts were setting in.  New York (12/7) asked " Whatever Happened to Barack Obama?"  American Interest (1/2010) had Obama "Flirting with Failure," Foreign Policy (1/2010) pictured Obama and Jimmy Carter ("Well, Maybe"), and The Economist (1/16/2010) saw it as "Time to get tough."   The election of Scott Brown (R) to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in the January 19 special election drove home the point.  In a trifecta of covers (2/1/2010), Time asked "Now What? Obama Starts Over," Newsweek delved into "The Inspiration Gap," and a New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt showed Obama first walking on water and then falling into the water.

At a Glance
Magazine covers help to sell a publication and highlight feature articles within it.  For some magazines, newsstand sales are a significant factor, and a punchy cover can provide a boost, while others depend largely upon their subscribers.  Magazine editors and art directors seek to convey stories of interest to their audiences using compelling combinations of photographs, photo illustrations or illustrations and text.  Editorial decisions, including those about what to put on the cover, are shaped by different calculations at a general interest magazine such as People as compared to magazines such as CQ Weekly and National Journal or some of the opinion magazines such the Weekly Standard, where newsstand sales are not a factor and influencing policy-makers is a priority.6  While editors face the imperative of getting their publications out on time, over time the results of their efforts provide snapshots of history.  Magazine covers give at-a-glance impressions of the issues and personalities of the day.  One can go back and look at past issues of Time magazine, for example, and get a sense of the concerns of decades ago. 

The past few years have been a very difficult time for magazine publishers.7  Ad revenues have fallen and magazines have had to cut editorial staff and make other changes.  Some magazines have gone out of business altogether or out of print (for example USN&WR now only does a monthly print issue), others have reduced their frequency from weekly to bi-weekly or bi-weekly to monthly or reduced their size (Rolling Stone) or undergone major overhauls (for example Newsweek in May 2009 shifted to doing more analysis and commentary; the first issue with the new look happened to feature Obama on the cover). 

Yet magazines continue to occupy a unique niche in the media universe.  Even if we do not subscribe to a particular magazine, we see magazines when we are riding on Metro or the bus, waiting at the dentist office or for a hair cut or walking past a news stand, and they influence our perceptions.

The Week ran the most Obama covers of all the publications surveyed—15 in 2009; the next most prolific news magazine was The Economist with eight Obama covers in 2009.  Looking at opinion magazines, one could ask whether conservative or liberal/progressive magazines run a president on the cover more frequently; reader.  For the period covered by this survey, The Weekly Standard had the most covers of the opinion magazines, however many of the opinion magazines are now bi-weekly or monthly so no conclusions can be drawn.  

The economy was a dominant theme of magazine covers featuring Obama during the first year of his administration.  During the transition, the Obama team was already at work on its economic stimulus plan.  National Review (1/26) led off with "It's raining money," a cover illustration showing Obama amid a swirl of money; The Week (2/13) had a similar illustration "After the Deluge," and The American Conservative (2/9) "Paper Pusher" showed Obama throwing money out of a helicopter.  In The Economist (2/14) cover "To the rescue" Obama and team and a big bag of money arrived by row boat in a Kevin Kallagher (Kal) illlustration inspired by the Emanuel Leutz painting of Washington crossing the Delaware.  Many other covers addressed economic themes.  Reason (3/2009) argued for a "A Better 'New New Deal'" in an issue featuring an illustration by cartoonist Henry Payne on the cover.  New York (3/30) asked "Does Anyone Around Here Know How to Fix an Economy?"  The Week (3/6) showed Obama facing the budget deficit, shown as a dragon by Free Harper in "Taming the beast."  Focusing on intervention in the auto industry, Roman Genn portrayed Obama as "The Mechanic-in-Chief" for National Review (5/4), while The Week (6/12) showed him as a car salesman in "Such a deal."  On the left, The Progressive (10/2009) "Giving in to Blackmail" cover had an illustration of Obama handing a bundle of money to a business executive holding a tin can.

Another popular theme of Obama covers was the debate over health care reform. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, spending on health care accounts for over 16 percent of the nation's economy. Obama vowed to accomplish health care reform in his first year in office. The Week (5/22), The Economist (6/27), National Review (7/20) and Time (8/10) produced cover portrayals of Obama as a doctor.  National Review's illustration of Obama as a proctologist in particular prompted some discussion.  The Week ran a couple of other Obama/health care covers: "Bailing out" (8/28) and "Strong Enough?" (9/18).

Examples of Covers Featuring Images of President Obama addressing Health Care Reform

See The List for credits.

Compared to covers focusing on domestic issues, there were relatively few American magazine covers featuring Obama on the international stage.  Examples included CQ Weekly (4/20) "Sharing the Stage;" The New Republic "Rendezvous in Beirut" (5/20) and "Who runs U.S. foreign policy?" (8/12); The Week's "Perilous passage" (3/13) and "On the hot seat" (10/2); and The Economist's "Welcome to Moscow" (7/4) and "The quiet American" (11/28). 
Afghanistan was a significant issue and rose in prominence in the months leading up to the President's December 1 speech at West Point.  Several covers from before the speech had "Obama's war" type headlines without images of Obama himself (these are beyond the scope of this survey; see note 5).  Obama was included in The Week's (10/23) "War and peace" which tied in the Nobel peace prize and in The Nation's (11/9) "Obama's Fateful Choice" which had a photo of Obama in an outline map of Afghanistan.  The December 1 speech provided a peg for more Afghanistan war covers.  Time's "It's His War Now" and Newsweek's "The Post-Imperial President" both used photos from the speech, while The Week's "It's his war now" featured an illustration of Obama in Afghan garb astride a white horse.

Magazine covers addressed Obama's ideology and more broadly his leadership style from early on.  During the transition there were covers comparing him to FDR, Abraham Lincoln and even George Washington.  The Nation (12/29/2008) ran a "Barack Obama, Pragmatist" cover.  Other covers treating ideology followed during the early months of the administration.  Covers from right-leaning magazines showed Obama as a socialist or near socialist and a big spender while covers on progressive and liberal magazines expressed discontent that Obama was not doing enough.  National Review (3/23) presented an illustration of Obama done in the socialist realism style ("Our Socialist Future").  On the left, The Progressive (May 2009) featured an Obama cover to accompany the article "Howard Zinn on Changing Obama's Mindset" while The Nation (6/15) ran one on "Exacting Change" and Tikkun (9/2009) asked "Has Obama Abandoned You?"  The theme of liberal discontent also showed up on more neutral magazines.  CQ Weekly (9/7) played off an Obama campaign sign with "Maybe We Can: Angst on the Left" and Newsweek (11/2) ran "Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet): A Liberal's Survival Guide."  Magazines also offered more ideologically neutral assessments of Obama and the administration.  New York (8/10) presented a cover "The Selling (and Selling and Selling) of the President."  Rolling Stone (8/20) looked at "Obama So Far" and National Journal (10/17) asked "Is He Tough Enough?"  These culminated in the one year anniversary assessments offered by many magazines.

A number of magazines showed the personal side of Obama.  Men's Journal (March 2009) presented the "jock in chief" while Parade (6/21) showed him in his role as a father with Sasha and Malia.  In Touch (4/27) showed him and Michelle on "How We Keep Our Love Alive" and the New York Times Magazine (11/1) took a look at "The First Marriage."  First Lady Michelle Obama was the subject of more than a dozen covers including the first in which Oprah Winfrey shared the cover of O Magazine (April 2009) and the inaugural issue of Children's Health (Oct. 2009).
Several covers generated a bit of attention.  The most controversial Obama cover during the first year came from Washingtonian (May 2009); the magazine used a months-old photo of the bare-chested Obama on vacation in Hawaii to promote "26 Reasons to Love Living Here."  Golf Digest's (Jan. 2010) cover "10 Tips Obama Can Take from Tiger" also garnered notice as it came out shortly after the Tiger Woods scandal broke; the cover showed a Photoshop-created image of Tiger Woods and Obama on the golf course.  Esquire (May 2009) produced what it billed as "the first ever mix 'n' match cover;" its "How to be a Man" issue  featured perforated cover photos of the faces of George Clooney, Obama and Justin Timberlake that allowed readers to make their own cover combinations.  Interestingly introduction of Bo the dog and the dinner crashing Salahis did not appear to make the cover of any American magazines despite the media flurries surrounding those episodes.

Visual Approaches
The covers in this survey encompass many different styles from straight photographs to photo illustrations to paintings.  Photographs offer documentary immediacy and are a good solution for covers featuring breaking news.  If it has the resources, a magazine may select a well known photographer such as Nigel Parry, Platon or Annie Liebowitz to do a shoot; more frequently it will pick up a photo from one of the wire services or photo agencies.  A close up head shot is a very common format.  Newsweek used an extreme close up of Obama's face to launch its redesign in May.  Wider shots document a president in a noteworthy setting or during an event such as a major speech.  At the magazine, the editors select from available images and determine cropping.
Sometimes old photos are recycled as with the Washingtonian example above.  Images from the campaign appeared in National Journal (7/11) "Obama's America," The Nation (11/23) "The Obama Generation," and Washington Monthly (Jan. 2010) "The Party of Obama." Vanity Fair's March 2009 "The Obama Era Begins" issue reused an Annie Liebowitz photo of Obama that had appeared as part of its July 2007 Africa cover series; however in this second run of the photo actor Don Cheadle was cropped out. 

Photo illustrations range from something as simple as adding an American flag background to realistic-looking but contrived scenarios to obvious exaggerations.  Time's (8/10) "Paging Dr. Obama" or Golf Digest's (Jan. 2010 image of Obama with Tiger Woods convey verisimilitude.  More exaggerated is The Economist's (6/27) "This is going to hurt"  showing Dr. Obama holding up a huge needle.  The American Conservative's (Jan. 2010) "Going South"  portrayal of Obama as a third world general is very imaginative indeed. 

Illustration allows infinite ways to create a mood or tone.  After editors set the cover subject, an art director can reinforce the theme of the cover by choosing a particular artist or style.  The artist in turn may introduce unique nuances and refinements that the art director had not envisaged.8   The New Republic's (12/2) "And Now..." issue uses a painting by Robert Hunt to good effect to show Obama "as he emerges to face the trials by fire that lie ahead for his administration."  The distinctive work of Roman Genn is well known to readers of National Review, while illustrations by Thomas Fluharty or Gary Locke often grace The Weekly Standard.  While the subject of Fluharty's "Here the People Rule" illustration for The Weekly Standard (9/14) is the health care town hall meetings held around the country during the summer, Obama appears in a couple of details.  The work references a Norman Rockwell painting but shows a less civil tone.  Fluharty includes an image of friend and fellow illustrator Gary Locke as the central figure.  An earlier issue of the magazine appears in the Locke figure's pocket with an illustration by...Fluharty.
Finally there is the question of the headline.  Typically just two or three words and rarely more than half a dozen, the headline adds punch to the image and hopefully lures the reader into the magazine.  Editors must balance the marketing imperative and need to represent the substance and tone of the featured article.  For example, for their Jan. 2010 issue editors at The American Interest considered using the headline "Listen Up Mr. President" before settling on the more provocative "Flirting with Failure."  Questions are also common.  For example, The Week (9/18) asked "Strong enough?" and National Journal (10/17) asked "Is He Tough Enough?"  

In the past year-plus, the typical American will have seen many thousands of photos, videos, illustrations and other depictions of President Obama—on television, on the Internet and in newspapers and magazines.  This survey considers a small, unique subset of that imagery.  Magazine covers provide snapshots of the news of the day.  This gathering of Obama covers highlights the creative works of myriad photographers and illustrators culled, coordinated and tweaked by art directors, and editors at magazines big and small, right, left and neutral, serious and celebrity, weekly, monthly and bi-monthly.  Some of the portrayals are favorable, others unfavorable.  Some are well-executed from a technical or creative point of view and others less so.  Some come close to the truth and others may be at variance with the facts.

President Obama entered the White House with very high expectations and has faced tough, difficult issues from the worst economy in a generation to war to attempting to reform the health care system.  Hopefully this presentation of covers from publications across the political spectrum will provoke thought on whether his leadership is meeting the daunting array of challenges facing the country.  The exhibit also aims to offer insights into magazine publishing and media coverage of Obama.  Finally, these covers should serve to introduce you to photographers and artists whose work you may not be familiar with.

1. One difficult point in assembling this exhibit was the question of where to draw lines in terms of what to include and what to leave out.  This is a technical note which outlines my considerations.  I've used a fairly narrow definition which may omit some potentially relevant covers and have made a few exceptions which one could argue are slightly inconsistent.   If one were coding for a rigorous analysis, the definitions would have to be tightened.
First, there are covers which do not show images of Obama but are certainly about him or his actions. 
At the most basic level are text-only covers; a couple of these are noted.  From the transition period, the New York Times Magazine's (1/18) had "Obama’s People"in large white type on a black background to highlight an extensive photo feature.  Over a year later The Nation (2/1/2010) used a typographic treatment for "Obama at One."

Another subset includes such covers as Newsweek's (2/9) "Obama's Vietnam" which has a black and white photo of Afghans/troops inset in the text, The Economist's (10/ 17) "Obama's war" issue which has a photo of a soldier amid swirling dust and a helicopter in the background, and National Journal's (12/5) "Obama as Poker Player" which has an extreme close up photo of a hand holding five playing cards.  Another particularly striking cover in this category was The Weekly Standard's (3/9) "Obama's America" which has a photo of sheep.  These are not included in the core of this survey.  Visual metaphors are also difficult.  The New Republic's (5/6) "Liberalism's Moment" cover did not name or show Obama but the harvest illustration broadly references liberal hopes for Obama.

I have not included instances where the cover focus is on one topic and Obama is a secondary image, shown in a teaser up in the corner or along the top, bottom or side.

A number of covers featured montages comprised of many different photos
; year-end reviews sometimes use this approach.  I considered these covers on a case by case basis.  Similar to teaser photos which play a secondary role, in some of the montages the image of Obama is lost in a crowd of other images.  For example, Obama is shown in one of over eighty photos lined up on Time's (05/11) "The Time 100: The World's Most Influential People" issue and appears not too clearly in one of at least a dozen photos on Time's 12/21 "The Year in Pictures" issue.  Likewise Newsmax's (Aug. 2009) "All the Presidents' Secrets" focuses on the Secret Service but also includes thumbnail-size photos of the past ten presidents.  By contrast, although Foreign Policy's (Dec. 2009) "100 Top Global Thinkers of 2009" has photos of about twenty people, the images are different sizes; the image of  Obama is second biggest and is prominently placed.  This cover is considered.   Similar concerns extend to illustrations.   The Week's (12/25) "The faces of 2009"cover has many different figures, but Obama occupies a prominent position. 

There are a few covers where imagery of Obama is a detail of larger cover art.  As discussed above, the artist Thomas Fluharty worked images of Obama into The Weekly Standard's "'Here the People Rule" (9/14) and also as a picture on the wall detail in "The New Labor Aristocracy" (10/12). 
Another example would be a crowd of supporters wearing Obama shirts or waving Obama signs. 

The Obama campaign logo and/or presidential seal are so associated with Obama that I have opted to include several of these covers.

2. The British newspaper The Economist is included as American circulation accounts for over half of its total circulation.

A sampling of magazine covers from other countries is included.  (While there were a multitude from around the time of the Inauguration these are not included.  To mention a couple of examples, India Today (2/2) asked "Will He Smile for Us?" and Outlook [India] (2/2) asked "Should India Fear Him?") 

Oftentimes covers on magazines overseas coincide with visits by President Obama to the respective countries.
  A typical image is a two shot of the leaders of the two countries. 

Magazine covers from a particular country also tend to focus on local and regional concerns.  Maclean's (6/29)
ran a provocative cover "Why He's Bad for Canada," Proceso in Mexico (4/12) tackled the war against drugs "Al ataque contra el narco," and America Economia of Brazil (9/2009) looked at difficulties in relations with Latin America in "No We Can't."

While American covers typically address the President's policies, activities and capabilities, on some of the overseas magazines he is presented as a symbol of the United States in much the same way as
the flag or the bald eagle.  Al-Hawadeth (1/15/2010) showed a picture of Obama on "Failures of CIA strengthen the teeth of Al Qaeda."  Even more broadly, because American presidents are so well known they can be used as stand-ins for prominent people generally.  New Statesman (9/28) featured a mostly obstructed image of Obama's face on "the 50 people who matter most."  Newsweek Polska (8/17) included Obama on a cover which appeared to be about relationships.

3. Peggy Noonan. "He Can't Take Another Bow."  The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28-29, 2009, page A15.

See also a less comprehensive list of covers from the first year of the George W. Bush administration.

4. For the argument that Obama's presidency began on Nov. 4, 2008 see for example: Jonathan Alter.  "The PDQ Presidency."  Newsweek.  Nov. 2, 2009.

See: and

6. For example, People (1/25/2010) had an exclusive interview with President and Mrs. Obama, but the cover feature was "Addicted to Plastic Surgery" with a big photo of Heidi Montag; a small photo of the Obamas was relegated to the upper right corner. 

7. The Magazine Publishers of America has very useful fact sheets on advertising and circulation.  See:

8. See Art Director's Corner.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION greatly appreciates the assistance provided by people at many of the magazines included in this exhibit.  Without their help this exhibit would not have been possible.  Subscribe today!

(American, alpha): The Advocate  -  The Atlantic  -  The American Conservative  -  The American Interest  -  The American Spectator   -  Black Enterprise  -  Business Week  -  Children's Health  -  CQ Weekly  -  E  -  Ebony  -  The Economist [see Note 1 above]  -  Entertainment Weekly  -  Esquire  -  Essence  -  Foreign Policy   -  Fortune  Glamour  -  Golf Digest  -  Government Executive  -  GQ  -  Harper's  -  In These Times  -  Jet  -  Ms.  -  Men's Health  -  Men's Journal  -  Mother Jones  -  The Nation  -  National Journal  -  National Review  -  The New Republic  -  New York  -  The New York Times Magazine  -  The New Yorker  -  Newsmax  -  Newsweek  -  Parade  -  People  -  Prevention  -  The Progressive  -  Reader's Digest Selecciones  -  Reason  -  Rolling Stone  -  Tikkun  -  Time  -  Town Hall  -  TV Guide  -  U.S. News & World Report  -  US Weekly  - Vanity Fair  - Vogue  -  Washington Monthly  -  Washingtonian  -  The Week  -  The Weekly Standard  -  World

(International by Region)AFRICA... Jeune Afrique  -  New African  -  AMERICAS... Canada: Maclean's  -  Mexico: Proceso  -  BRAZIL... America Economia  -  Carta Capital  -  ASIA... China: Caijing  -  Yazhou Zhoukan  -  Beijing Review  -  Japan: Economist  -  EUROPE... France: L'Express  -  Le Point  -  Le Nouvel Observateur  -  Paris Match  -  Germany: Der Spiegel  -  Stern  -  Great Britain: New Statesman  -  The Spectator  -  Standpoint  -  Poland: Newsweek Polska  -  Russia: Expert  -  Russia Today   -  MIDDLE EAST: Al Watan Al Arabi   -    Lebanon: Al-Hawadeth

also thanks to:
The Gelman Library particularly
    Philip Raino, Exhibits Developer,  Special Collections Research Center

    Global Resources Center
Philip Chalk, Art Director at The Weekly Standard (interview Jan. 2010)
Japan Information and Culture Center/Embassy of Japan

Copyright © 2009, 2010  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action