Cartoonists Finally Cool With Black President

Obama's big ears identify him now, but it's still hands off Michelle.

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There are few things sweeter for a political cartoonist than a president with that one striking physical attribute. Abe Lincoln had the tall, lanky build. Teddy Roosevelt had the teeth and Obama has the ears, says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of cartoonsAmerican Political Cartoons: The Evolution of National Identity, 1754-2010. Hess says Obama is an easy catch for cartoonists. "They can do a face and the ears and everybody will know it's Obama," he says. "That's an asset to perhaps everybody but Obama."

But Obama has provided cartoonists with more than a pair of big ears. Obama allowed them access to the black man. When Obama assumed the presidency, "The cartoonist had to deal with the African American," says Hess. "They were very skittish up to this point about the characteristics—the nose, lips and so forth. But with Obama as the president of the United States, that's all out the window." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Still, it has taken a while for editorial cartoonists to warm up to Obama, who can appear humorless and professorial. Mike Keefe, the Denver Post editorial cartoonist who just won the Pulitzer Prize, for example, included just one Obama sample in his portfolio to be judged.

And while most have warmed to poking fun at Obama, artists are careful with the first lady. "Michelle is still too popular to be much involved," says Hess, unlike First Ladies and politicos Eleanor Roosevelt—a "natural"—and Hillary Clinton—"somebody in her own right." [See photos of Michelle Obama.]

With time left in the White House, Obama as the political cartoon could evolve. Cartoonists may start bringing props into the mix, like they did with Franklin Roosevelt's infamous cigarette holder. "Maybe [Obama] could work a basketball into his act," says Hess.