MATT WUERKER has thoroughly enjoyed playing with President Obama’s face.
Wuerker goes so far as to call the president’s countenance “a great gift to cartoonists” — perhaps even “the best mug to work with since Reagan.”
“He simply has a hugely expressive face with a great range of expressions,” says Wuerker, Politico’s Pulitzer-winning cartoonist. “His smile is extreme — more teeth and more smile lines than seems plausible.” And at the other end of that spectrum of inviting expressions, he says, is the Obama “throwing shade” scowl — “a joy for any cartoonist to work with.”
As Obama leaves office Friday, cartoonists on both sides of the political aisle are saying farewell to a man who provided provocative visual, if not verbal, fodder for humor.
Scott Stantis has long followed Obama from the president’s home turf, as the right-leaning cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. And over the years, his caricature of Obama took shape to fit the politician’s policies and actions.
Part of what the United States needed from its president these past eight years, Stantis tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, “was a full-throated expression of American exceptionalism across the world stage. Instead, we got an apology tour, souring relations with our allies, Russia’s Putin besting President Obama at seemingly every turn, a Middle East devolving further into a radical Islamic hellscape — and all capped off with an inarguably disastrous result in Libya.
“The way this played out in my cartoons,” Stantis continues, “is I ended up drawing President Obama as a virtual stick figure. Elegant bearing with his nose in the air, but with little substance.”
Another right-leaning cartoonist, the Pulitzer-winning Michael Ramirez, who is syndicated by Creators, also rendered an Obama who grew increasingly wispy, barely able to support oversized ears.
“Caricatures will always reflect the physical dynamics of the person,” Ramirez says, “but eventually they reflect something deeper — the inner being of the person.” This has held true, he notes, with the darkly shaded Richard Nixon caricatures, the physically diminished Jimmy Carter cartoons and the loose-lined Bill Clinton.
And so Ramirez’s Obama evolved. Initially, because Obama had sold himself as a unifying centrist, Ramirez says, the cartoonist drew him as an image of hope, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, with the caption, “Godspeed.”
But over two terms, Ramirez says, “This president has diminished our global reputation, alienated our allies and emboldened our enemies.”
The more Ramirez perceived Obama as having decreasing gravitas, “the more his physical presence shrank in my cartoons. . . . In the most literal terms, he has become the executive lightweight.”
Keith Knight, on the other hand, did not relish mocking Obama — instead, he relished the larger picture and what his election became a symbol for.
“I cannot say it was enjoyable,” says Knight, creator of the features “(th)ink” and “The K Chronicles,” “but the moment the term ‘post-racial America’ was floated by the media after Obama was elected, I looked forward to exploiting the mountain of evidence proving that America hasn’t moved as far ahead as it thinks it has.”
And Rob Rogers, the left-leaning cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won’t miss Obama from a professional standpoint.
“As a citizen and a human . . . I will miss him a lot,” Rogers says. “As a political cartoonist, however, I say good riddance.”
“He was tough to draw,” the cartoonist adds. “Not technically. He was pretty easy to caricature with the big ears, dark eyebrows and big smile of hope that quickly turned to a frown. He was tough to draw because I agreed with most of his policies.
“He was an intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate president who always tried to do the right thing, even if it was unpopular,” Roger continues. “The best political cartoons or caricatures are the ones that are fueled by moral outrage. . . . My cartoons of Obama often ended up as drawings of him reacting to birthers, a GOP-led Congress, the NRA or any number of other groups out to get him. I often caricatured him with a despondent, helpless look on his face that said, ‘I can’t believe this #%@* is happening!’ ”
In other words, Roger says, “It is incredibly difficult to conjure up the venomous ink required to create powerful satire when the subject is someone you like and respect.
“I don’t think I will have the same problem with the next president.”