I haven't seen semiobama do anything with this so far (maybe I missed it?)*, but the striking thing about the cover is that it is a direct take-off of the famous poster series by an artist named Shepard Fairey that circulated in the weeks leading up to the election. Here's one of Fairey's posters from the series:
And here's the TIME magazine cover:
The point to be made here is not that TIME is imitating Fairey: that's beyond obvious. Nor is it exactly a "tribute," to Fairey or Obama, either one. Republicans might argue that TIME is here revealing its biases by casting the new president in a light that his supporters clearly approve. But it seems even more likely that whoever selected this cover for the "Person of the Year" issue is up to something a little more subtle.
The TIME cover uses several visual gestures (colors, the rather stylized yet realistic artistic style) to acknowledge the Fairey posters, but superimpose onto it several words and images that aren't immediately clear. If you look closely, you can see a windmill, part of an American flag, a snippet of a headline ("Breaking News: Barack Obama...") on Obama's forehead, and (more proimenently than anything else) a dollar sign, just below the president-elect's left ear. None of these images seems exactly to be a clear "message"; together, they form something that might be described as more like a "texture." They resemble the various symbolic and anti-counterfeiting design features on a dollar bill.
What message does this send? That Obama will one day be one of the honored presidents on American money? Somewhat less favorably (or more ambiguously), that the economy is the biggest issue he will face as a new president?
At any rate, it's an interesting example of a publication taking control of a candidate-sponsored image (sort of; Fairey's posters weren't "official" campaign documents, but prints were available for sale on Obama's campaign website) and using it to its own ends. Rather than saying "we're willing to present you in the way you and your supporters want you represented, Barack Obama," TIME seems to be saying "Now that you're elected, you might think you control the message, but in reality, you belong to us."
UPDATE: I didn't look closely enough; the TIME cover doesn't imitate a poster by Shepard Fairey; it is by Shepard Fairey. Almost as if Obama has, by some weird consensus, taken on a (semi-)"official" poster artist, with a distinctive style that will (presumably) be associated with the new president for some time. Hard to think of a precedent where a public figure (even beyond just politics) has been so closely associated with a particular artist or form of imagery. Semiobama doesn't seem to talk about the recent TIME cover, but they do discuss the original Fairey poster in some detail, and astutely, here.
*ANOTHER UPDATE: semiobama has now had its say on the TIME cover (and even provided a link to this blog--thanks, guys!), bringing several additional insights into the mix.