What are self-respecting political humorists to do? They feasted on Bill Clinton. They had a field day with Dubya. But on Barack Obama, newspaper cartoonists and late-night talk-show kings alike cannot lay a glove.
Day 100 of this young presidency is almost upon us, and with it the traditional first verdicts of every think-tank, journalist and pundit worth his salt. Indeed, adroitly turning defence into offence, Obama himself will mark the moment next Wednesday with a prime-time news conference. But where are the people who are supposed to skewer him?
A political cartoonist not only reflects perceptions, but helps to shape them. The implosion of George Bush's presidency was plain for all to see; but his political shrivelling was hastened by the cartoonist's pen. By the end, he was a tiny figure with pointed face and triangular ears, belligerent but ignored, watching uncomprehending as the world swept past him.
But no one has dared do much with Obama. True, presidents tend to enjoy a similar honeymoon with cartoonists as they do with voters. Nonetheless, it wasn't long after the 1993 inauguration that Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strip was depicting Clinton as a waffle, and George W quickly became a Stetson hat floating on top of an asterisk that Americans use to denote a dodgy sports statistic. (Read dodgy election in Florida.) But Trudeau hasn't come up with an Obama icon yet. Nor has anyone else.
One way and another, the 44th president is a tough target for cartoonists. Once you get beyond the cropped hair, the protruding ears and his thinness, there's not much to work with. Verbally, Obama gives no hostages to fortune. His style is thoughtful, serious and low key. The angrier he gets, the cooler he becomes. The best cartoon I've seen of him so far was as Buddha, with eight images of him in different moods – from happy to sad, from relaxed to apoplectically furious. All eight, needless to say, were inscrutable and identical.
But there are two other reasons for the kid-glove treatment. Race, inevitably, is one of them. Obama likes to be described as a president who happens to be black, proof that America's oldest societal wound is finally healing. But it hasn't healed entirely, as the New York Post found out a couple of months ago, when it ran an editorial cartoon of a dead chimpanzee, with the caption: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
The outrage was wide and immediate, and not only in the black community. Nor was it assuaged by the Post's insistence that the depiction was referring to a recent news story about a pet chimp that had been killed by police after it attacked a friend of its owner. In the end, both the paper and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, were forced to make public apologies. The cartoonists had been warned.
And just last week, here in the capital, our local glossy, The Washingtonian, attracted much tut-tutting with the cover of its May issue, adorned with a shot of a sleek-muscled Obama clad in a bathing costume. The peg was a feature listing "26 Reasons to Love Living in Washington". Proximity to the beach god-cum-president was listed as No 2. The real surprise is that it wasn't number one.
Which brings me to the other, far more important reason for the respectful treatment. It's not so much that his political approval rating is high. At 63 per cent, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center last week, Obama is doing better than Clinton and both Bushes, but not as well as Ronald Reagan at a similar point in his presidency.
What differentiates Obama is his personal appeal. You may object to the bank bailouts, his willingness to talk to Iran, Cuba and the like, his decision to publish the Bush administration torture memos. But for the first time in more than five years, more Americans than not believe their country is "on the right track". Obama, they believe, is finally doing what has been put off for so long.
Pew found that three-quarters of Americans have a favourable view of him, underlining how, at the end of these 100 days, an overwhelming majority remain willing to give their President the benefit of the doubt. Not only do they appreciate his calm and seriousness, at a desperately serious moment for the country. They also like him. Which means that cartoons making fun of him won't do much for circulation at this fraught moment for newspapers.
For those who take their lead from the foaming-mouthed editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, of course, Obama is and for ever will be a liberal Satan. He is, moreover, a polarising figure – at least if you go by polls showing that while Democrats adore him, Republicans dislike him even more than Democrats did George W. The discrepancy is due to the fact that the Republican party has shrunk. Those who are left are true believers, with no kind word for any Democrat. Many moderates, on the other hand, have simply left the party. That, too, is the Obama effect.
One hundred days is a ridiculously arbitrary period: why not 50, or 500 days? But few would dispute that Obama has got off to a pretty good start. The focus has been on that limpid, unflappable style – but the substance hasn't been bad either.
This has been the most activist start to a new presidency, certainly since Lyndon Johnson in the 1964-65 heyday of the "Great Society" legislation, and arguably since Franklin Roosevelt's First 100 Days, which laid the foundations of the New Deal (and started the whole 100 days fixation). But who knows how long it will last? Come Day 200 in August, the economy may have taken a turn for the worse, and Obama's detached calm may irritate, not soothe. At which point, the honeymoon will be over – and the cartoonists back in business.Reuse content