If the point of putting something on the cover of a magazine is to sell copies of the magazine, then the folks at The New Yorker are surely smart to have decided to take the most controversial stereotypes about Barack and Michelle Obama and put them front and center on the magazine racks of America.

The Obamas remain a mystery to most Americans. Primary results and polls suggest that the electorate has found much to like about the Illinois senator and his wife. But the voters who will decide whether to make the Obamas the country’s First Couple don’t know a whole lot about the people they might install in the White House next January.

That ignorance is the last remaining hope of a Republican Party that, after 14 years of Gingrich and DeLay and eight years of Bush and Cheney, has pretty much blown the franchise. Only if a creaking GOP machine can spin a mild and moderate freshman senator and a crisp and professional hospital administrator into something scary does John McCain stand a chance in November.

The Republicans have been working hard to gin up the fear factor. But who would have thought they’d get an assist from the most elitely liberal of elite liberal journals?

The New Yorker, which has a fine history of using compelling cover images to push the envelope on debates about race and societal division, this week offers up a cartoonish depiction of Barack Obama as a Muslim terrorist fist-bumping Michelle Obama, who is done up as an armed Black Panther-style 60s radical with a Angela Davis afro.

These Obamas are in the White House with a picture of Osama bin Laden on the wall. For good measure, they’ve got a flag burning in the fireplace.

The illustration, by Barry Blitt, is titled “The Politics of Fear,” and according to a New Yorker statement, it “satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick, offering what might best be described as the “Full Manhattan” defense, told Huffington Post that everyone who is anyone surely must know that The New Yorker would never publish something that was sincerely offensive to liberal sensibilities. “The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are,” the editor explained.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone in America is as up as Remnick might hope with the cocktail chatter at the right parties on the fashionable upper west side — or, as summer progresses, the Hamptons.

The Obama camp complains that the image of a robed President Obama and a combat-fatigued First Lady Obama is “tasteless and offensive.” Strategist-in-chief David Axelrod, pulled into a controversy he did not want to be a part of this week, dismissed the cartoon as “poorly executed”

While it is surely true that Obama’s campaign specializes in whining, this griping ought not be dismissed quite so casually as most of the headquarters hand-wringing.

To be sure, the New Yorker cover art is satire — perhaps not as smart or stylish as what you will find in a random issue of The Onion, but satire all the same.

The problem is not that The New Yorker has tried to make a mockery of right-wing efforts to smear the Obamas.

It is that The New Yorker has not done a very good job of it.

Like “serious news” articles that try to cover their salaciousness by offering semi-scholarly “reviews” of rumors about whether one of John McCain’s potential running mates might be gay, the current New Yorker cover takes the crudest political spin, puts it on the rack at Borders or Target and demands that enlightened Middle America laugh along with the joke.

No problem there. People in Iowa sorted through most of the attacks on Obama before New Yorkers were even taking the senator seriously as a presidential contender. Plenty of Americas who have never supped at the Russian Tea Room will “get it.”

So this issue of The New Yorker will be a very big seller.

At one level, that’s very good because Ryan Lizza’s 18-page piece on Barack Obama’s background as a Chicago political player is excellent. Lizza cuts through the ridiculous spin that would have us believe that Obama somehow rose to the top of the Illinois political scene by chance or serendipity. In what for Obama fabulists will be agonizing detail, Lizza explains that, “perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them….he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game.”

To the extent that a provocative cover leads Americans to Lizza’s important article, that’s healthy.

Unfortunately, most Americans won’t be underlining passages from political articles this week. They won’t buy a New Yorker. They won’t even see an actual copy of the publication.

As such, the cover itself, and the over-the-top discourse it will inspire, will probably do more to reinforce rather than challenge the smears.

Who, ultimately, deserves the blame for week of ugliness that is about to transpire?

Not Britt. He’s an artist and, while there will be some debate about whether he pulled this particular project off, he has made a bold effort.

Not Remnick. He’s a magazine editor and he will sell a lot of magazines this week. He’s not doing so by running pictures of Brittany Spears in her underwear, but by trying to provoke a deeper discourse. Again, there may be debate about how successful the initiative is, but Remnick’s doing his job.

Not the Republican smear merchants. They were attacking Obama and they will keep doing so. The only thing that has changed is that they’re now getting some elite assistance.

Put a little blame on the cable “news” and talk-radio networks, which will use the New Yorker cover controversy to fill segment No. 1,078 in the Obama/Osama series and No. 689 in the Michelle/Not My Belle series.

And put a little more blame on the Obama campaign’s strategists, who will continue to tell the candidate to avoid rather than address the whole Muslim thing, just as they will continue to keep Michelle Obama in the witness protection program where they placed her after she made a few thought-provoking and valuable comments in February.

The proper response to The New Yorker cover is not to whine about what is tasteless or offensive but rather to ask: Why do artists and editors at a magazine that clearly sympathizes with Obama think satire is necessary at this point? The answer is that Barack Obama has yet to fully or functionally introduce himself to the American people.

When and if he does, with a full and frank discussion of his roots, his experience and, hopefully, his belief that being described as a Muslim is not in and of itself a smear, Obama will be embraced even more warmly than he has been up to this point. The same goes for Michelle, whose abilities and insights have yet to be well displayed by a campaign that ought to be making a lot more use of this remarkable woman.

The counter to this cover is not complaint but conversation — the deeper, the smarter… and the sooner… the better.