Here’s one that’s a little hard even for media folks to figure. Out of the blue, the Associated Press quietly issued a new style rule that took effect at 3 a.m. Nov. 14. As a result of this 3 a.m. call, the AP will sound a more formal tone when referring to the president of the United States for the first time in its news reports.

No more “President Bush this” or “President Bush that” when AP copy in America — whether written for broadcast, print or online — initially mentions the holder of the nation’s highest office.

What the style change we can believe in really means, as of Barack Obama’s inauguration Jan. 20, is: “President Obama this” or “President Obama that” won’t be good enough. Too traditional.

News organizations affiliated with AP — as well as the declining numbers of corporate and freelance scribes who look to the AP Stylebook as ultimate arbiter of style and usage — will be proper only if they write “President Barack Obama” when first mentioning the leader of the free world.

Got that? First and last name, ladies and gentlemen of the mainstream media. And you know how they already love to call the president-elect simply “Barack.”

“Well, there they go again,” critics will say. Those carping skeptics will glom on to this historic change as the latest example of the news media’s lovesick casting of Obama as an exceptional being.

In what one AP reporter called a “cryptic” advisory Nov. 12 on the wire service’s Web site, AP media relations director Paul Colford wrote:

The Associated Press is adopting a universal style for referring to all heads of state, including the United States. Effective Thursday at 3 a.m. EST, the AP will use the title and first and family names on first reference: President George W. Bush, not just President Bush; President-elect Barack Obama, not just President-elect Obama; President Nicolas Sarkozy, not just President Sarkozy.

So, what the change actually represents is the media’s further discarding of American exceptionalism in favor of an international standard — a sort of global test, to use John Kerry’s memorable phrase. Despite the implication of the French example cited above, AP style until now had required first and last name on first reference for all heads of state except the American president.

Sure, it took less space to print “President Roosevelt” than to print “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt” back in the day — when every inch of spare newsprint meant more room for news. More importantly, though, the quaint old style assumed Americans’ familiarity – by natural and national kinship, if you will — with their president. “In most cases, the first name of a current or former U.S. president is not necessary on first reference,” the AP Stylebook entry for “president” instructed.

Now, though, AP stories will introduce the American president — a citizen of the world, after all – with the same formality with which the wire service treats other leaders of nations: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — even North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il. No preconditions. (AP’s work for overseas markets already took this more formal approach to U.S. presidents.)

Note, though, the new style rule for Obama will not include a middle initial — as in “President Barack H. Obama” — even though that’s the new rule for the sitting president, “President George W. Bush.”

New York’s cracked: “No doubt someone in the GOP was hoping for the whole shebang; namely that on first reference Obama would be President-elect Barack Hussein Obama, which come to think of it would be pretty awesome.”

The postmodern AP, a 162-year-old cooperative owned by 1,500 daily newspaper members, nurtures a well-earned rep for striving to be politically correct. This is the wire that ruled “gay” to be “preferred over homosexual” and insisted on referring to illegal aliens as “illegal immigrants”– thus sullying the good name of immigrants.

Tradition isn’t entirely against the AP style rules with the Obama ascendancy. It’ll still be “Obama,” just as it was “Bush,” in subsequent mentions in a story — what journalists call “second reference.”

So no “Mr. Obama.” No “President Obama.” No “O Mighty Obama.” (Kidding.)

Just plain ol’ Obama. Just like all those mere mortal presidents before him. Does that strike anyone as disrespectful?