The first thing I said when I saw the shirtless-Obama Washingtonian cover?
Was it supposed to be cute? Daring? The editors have defended the image by noting that President Obama isn't like other presidents, by which they almost certainly mean he's generally regarded as more conventionally attractive than most American presidents, or "hot." But that's clearly not the only way in which Obama is different than every other American president -- and, while it might be new to have a black president, there is nothing new about objectifying black men and focusing on their sexual "hotness." It is undoubtedly more convenient for them to ignore that context, so they might pretend they're not playing into it.
There is a long history of black men being reduced to the physical, being defined in terms of their (often exaggerated) sexuality. Hell, the mindset of Southern whites for centuries—and especially after 1865--rested partially on the notion that pure white women had to be protected from the irrepressible urges of the oversexed, black male savage.*
This is an image we have internalized. In the case of black men, they face the dilemma of living in a patriarchal, heterosexist society, that demands that they prove their manhood, and a racist one, that denies them the traditional means of proving it—namely through the roles of “provider** and protector.” They are often left to demonstrate their “manliness” through physical and verbal violence (though I would argue that this is true across race and class lines) and sexual prowess, determined by the number of female “conquests” they’ve made.
In those respects, this cover disregards history. But it also captures a very present-day phenomenon—the projection of an aura of “casualness” around the Obamas. I get that people want to make them seem approachable in a they’re-just-like-you-and-me way. It’s a way to ease a country in denial about its racism into the reality of having a black first family. There’s another effect of this “casualization” though, rooted deeply in racism and classism. While the Obamas are commonly compared to the Kennedys, what goes unspoken is that they lack the pedigree, the lifelong experience with “the formal” that John and Jacqueline had. What I read over and over, from people who critique Michelle Obama's fashion sense, is the implication that she is too casual—she does not know how to dress appropriately. I believe the Washingtonian cover reveals a similar sentiment about President Obama.
Finally, I’d like to point to the Washingtonian’s narrow definition of hot that focuses on the physicality of the President. Now, of course, we live in a country obsessed with appearances and operating with a very narrow concept of attractiveness, so the Washingtonian is not alone. But I think some of the “hottest” things about Obama are his intelligence, the respect and love he seems to have for his wife, and the alternative image of black masculinity he represents—no shirtless image required to portray any of that.
*Neither is there anything new about putting black bodies on display to titillate or entertain or to determine their physical desirability.
** One interesting thing to note is that while black men might play the provider, it is cast in a different context than white men’s role. Black men might shell out money, but it is in a context in which black women are assumed to be playing the role of the greedy gold-digger who "sells" herself to a temporary “provider.” As Lisa Jones noted, “Between rappers turning ‘ho’ into a national chant and [the movie Waiting to] Exhale telling African Americans that our real problem is the shortage of brothers who are both well hung and well paid, I’m getting to think that all we can offer each other is genitalia and the paycheck.” Quoted in Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought.