Barack Obama leapt to Big Bird’s defense. Big Bird said, no thanks.
If the first debate between Obama and Mitt Romney winds up being a turning point in the election, the episode involving American children’s tallest, yellowest feathered-est friend may prove to be a symbol of what went wrong for the incumbent.
During the Oct. 3 debate, moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour asked the candidates for specifics about how they’d tackle the federal debt and deficit. Romney reiterated the test he said he’d use to decide which spending to cut: “Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” For examples, he named Obamacare and then said:
I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.
Obama did not address this remark during the debate, but within days his campaign released a short video ad mocking Romney’s position on PBS by comparing Big Bird to Bernie Madoff and saying, “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.”
Never mind that Romney, during the same debate, said the banking industry needs regulation and accurately described the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” bill as the cementing of Too Big To Fail in federal law and thus an enormous sop to the biggest banks. Never mind that Obama’s response to the same question about debt and deficits included a mention of “18 government programs for education” that he’d cut (cutting education funds? but it’s for teh kidz!). Or that Sesame Street is such a merchandising powerhouse that it easily could survive on its own (take it from a dad whose kids have Elmo on their pajamas and Cookie Monster on their diapers, in addition to probably a dozen or more toys, stuffed animals and books with the furry characters on them).
Never mind all that. The Obama campaign decided to make an issue, albeit a fairly minor one, out of saving Big Bird.
Which probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if the Sesame Street Workshop hadn’t issued this response:
Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down.
As the kids on Twitter would say: Obama campaign #FAIL.
Now, normally anything that keeps the Obama campaign from having to talk about the economy can be seen as a good thing for the incumbent. But getting rejected by Big Bird?
Mockery of mockery aside, this strikes me as a pretty apt summary of why the 70 million people who watched last week’s debate overwhelmingly thought Romney came out as the winner. Here was Romney, on a night when Obama attacked him for not being specific about his plans, making a specific statement about a spending cut he’d make — and one not likely to be popular with his intended audience that night, which very clearly was the small but critical group of undecided moderates in the electorate.
The Obama campaign’s response? Ham-fisted pandering that drew a rebuke from the very cause meant to be championed.
The talk throughout this general-election campaign about likeability has been overplayed because it misses the point. If the electorate wanted the most likeable guy available in the White House, Obama would have been running circles around Romney instead of never, for even a single day, leading the Real Clear Politics average of polls by even 6 percentage points (never by even 5 points since Romney effectively clinched the GOP nomination).
The voters aren’t looking for the guy they’d most like to attend a beer summit with. They’re looking for the guy who can run the country more effectively. Muppet panders, from a candidate who has presided over four consecutive $1,000,000,000,000-plus deficits and the surpassing of the $16,000,000,000,000 mark in federal debt, are not likely to resonate with them.
The race is not over by a long shot, but Obama suddenly has to do more than tread water if he’s going to win.
– By Kyle Wingfield