WASHINGTON - Forget Barack Obama's staff making contact with a governor charged with corruption. What has everyone talking is the president-elect's fine first form.
"FIT FOR OFFICE: Buff Bam is Hawaii hunk," the New York Post gushed on its cover yesterday above a photo of the future president strolling without a shirt in Hawaii. The Drudge Report called him "President Beefcake," while TMZ said that the president-elect is "still humble enough to do laundry - ON HIS ABS!"
The photos were distributed by Bauer-Griffin, a photo agency more typically found on the corners of Hollywood. Photographer Chris Behnke simply strolled along the beach to get the shot, said agency co-owner Frank Griffin.
Obama "wasn't hiding. He was completely out in the open," Griffin said. "We didn't by any stretch of the imagination expect to get the images we got."
Griffin said Behnke had gone to the beach to get general views of the estate where Obama is staying, but instead found easy access to a view of the first family hitting the beach. "We use the expression, 'He gave it up,' " Griffin said.
Members of the press corps traveling with Obama have been careful to respect his privacy. A spokesman traveling with Obama in Hawaii did not have immediate comment.
Griffin said that he doesn't expect his agency to stake out Washington regularly, but added that Obama is "now the world's biggest celebrity, just after Angelina and Brad. I guess they're neck-and-neck right now."
The celebrity description is apt, even if Obama faces a plummeting economy and two wars upon entering office. He's seen as often on "Access Hollywood" as on the nightly news, and appears in "Us Weekly" with the regularity of a Jennifer Aniston.
And should we really be surprised?
When John F. Kennedy was pictured shirtless, there were media accounts fretting about the threshold we had crossed as a country, said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor who is working on a history of political spin.
"There was John F. Kennedy by the beach, shirt off, this young, glamorous president," Greenberg said. "So, in a way this is 48 years old now that we're having this."
Since then we've had Lyndon B. Johnson lifting his shirt to show reporters his surgery scar and pictures of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in swim trunks.
"It was kind of an erosion of what had been boundaries of formality between the president and the public," Greenberg said. "We've had 'boxers and briefs' and a real acquaintanceship with a personal side, an uninhibited side, an unclothed side of the president."
Obama's physique has been well-exposed; photographers snapped him body surfing in Hawaii during the campaign. He was on the November cover of Men's Health and detailed his workouts for the magazine: 45 minutes, six days a week, alternating weights and cardio.
Peter Moore, editor of Men's Health, called Obama focused and disciplined about his workouts and what he eats. "I'd say he has a four-pack, rather than a six-pack, but most of us are working with a full keg," he said.
He said Obama has buffed up since his days on the road during the campaign: "It's heavy lifting to form your Cabinet, that's for sure."
Combine the increased interest in a president's personal life with an increasing hunger for celebrity photos and a chiseled presidential body, and Obama becomes an obvious target for paparazzi. Apparently the Obama Girl isn't the only one with a crush.
"Comments have been 95 percent positive, everything from 'helllooo president' to a 65-year-old lady who said she had to wait this long to find a president who she finds attractive," Griffin said.
Earlier on his vacation, Obama was cranky as reporters snapped pictures through a chain-link fence and bushes, asking "OK, guys. Come on. . . . How many shots do you need?"
But such personal shots - dropping the girls off at school, hitting the gym, practicing his golf swing - also serve to humanize the president. Greenberg can see why Obama might allow the beach photos to be taken.
"I'm sure if he didn't do it on purpose, he's not exactly crying in his coffee about it," he said. "I don't see any downside."
Well, maybe one: Might world leaders take the president less seriously if they can picture him in his underwear?
Fortunately, French President Nicolas Sarkozy beat him to it with stripped-down beach photos. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was pictured shirtless on a fishing expedition.
"In some ways we're entering a more casual international environment, too," Greenberg said. "But if he's sitting down with Putin, he has to project gravitas."
Griffin has submitted his photo agency for credentials for Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20. He said it's too soon to estimate how much Bauer-Griffin will earn from the beach photos "within tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands."
"I have a feeling that the president-elect kind of accepts this, that it goes with the territory," Griffin said. "He's become a celebrity. I think the pictures humanize him and show that he's just like the rest of us."