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By Jay Cost

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The Celebrity-in-Chief?

Last week I noted that the First Lady's office spoke out against toys made in the likeness of the President's daughters. While the Obama campaign had cultivated Obama's celebrity status, it seemed as though the Obama Administration was looking to move his image beyond this, and into the more traditional view people have of the President and his family.

Now, I'm not so sure. In fact, there seems to me to be some mixed signals coming from the White House. On the one hand was this item:

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama's popularity makes him a marketer's dream. Now, the honeymoon may be over for those trying to profit from his appeal.

White House lawyers want to control the use of the president's image, recognizing the worldwide fascination about Obama's election, First Amendment free-speech rights and easy access to videos and photos on the Web.

"Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

That's a fine line to tread, I think, but it's consistent with the letter the First Lady's office sent last week about those toys: the President is not a celebrity, he's the President, and he intends to be viewed as such.

But then I was at the grocery store, and I saw this:

US Weekly Cover.jpg

This is certainly inconsistent with getting the Obama's outside the celebrity culture. If that's the goal, you don't have the first family on the cover of Us Weekly, inevitably next to a picture of some celebrity (in this case Jessica Simpson) who looks "fat."

I'm confused. What's the White House's game here? One thing we can be sure of, Us Weekly is friendly to the Obama's. For starters, it ran many glowing covers of the President and his family during the campaign. Additionally, it's published by Jann Wenner, who also publishes Rolling Stone (another magazine that's dedicated many covers to the President), and who gave $5,300 in contributions to the President last cycle (the earliest coming in May, 2007).

So, perhaps the White House is ambivalent about Obama's participation in the celebrity culture. I first speculated that it was working to move him out of it, but maybe not. Maybe it wants to keep a presence in that world, but simply take more control over that presence. If so, I think that's a mistake. As I wrote last week, I think it is in the President's interest to appear as the President, not President/Celebrity. I think that the latter will, in the long run, only serve to diminish President Obama's image. The White House has taken some good steps in this direction - objecting to the toys, making it known that it thinks there are limits to the use of his image - but then we see the first family featured on our way through the checkout aisle. I don't think that's a good idea. The White House shouldn't want the average consumer talking about the Obama's and Jennifer Aniston's love life in the same breath.

I hope they put a stop to this kind of media exposure.

-Jay Cost