Obama’s Big Bird Trap: That Debate

Photograph by Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Big Bird from "Follow That Bird," presented by Sesame Street.

Has President Barack Obama walked into a Big Bird trap?

The president has had no shortage of fun over the past week with Republican Mitt Romney’s evocation of the Sesame Street favorite in their first debate. The president has played on Romney’s words about cutting federal funding for the Public Broadcasting Service despite his own fondness for PBS — “I love Big Bird,” Romney said.

The Obama campaign has even cut a TV ad with a cameo appearance by Big Bird.

Only to walk into this:

“These are tough times with real serious issues,” Romney told voters as he campaigned in the hard-fought “swing state” of Iowa today, “so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird.”

For Obama, this also has meant spending the last week talking about a debate in Denver on Oct. 3 which most of the 67.2 million Americans who viewed it — by a three-to-one margin in the Pew Research Center’s poll — say Romney won.

Asked in debate how he’d cut the federal deficit, Romney said he’d start by repealing “Obama-care,” the president’s health care law. Then: “I like PBS,” Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS as he spoke of cutting federal aid for public television. “I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too.”

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to  Obama, said this about Romney on a campaign conference call with reporters the day after the debate:

“When he was asked what to do with our deficit, his one big idea was to fire Big Bird.” (Well, no, “Obama-care” is bigger.)

Obama carried the Sesame Street fight to the campaign trail, telling supporters of Romney in Virginia last week: “His biggest example was to go after public television. For all you moms and dads out there, don’t worry, somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird… Governor Romney is going to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring down the hammer on Sesame Street.

Tim Kaine, the former governor of Virginia and Democratic National Committee chairman running for Senate, introduced Obama at the college campus in Fairfax, Virginia: “We’re not going to cut the deficit by giving tax breaks to Exxon-Mobil and firing Big Bird, folks.”

Now, for years politicians have been courting the Baby Boom generation. This, finally, looked like a ripe opening for appealing to the Big Bird generation.

At one point, the crowd at George Mason University was chanting “P-B-S.”

On another campus last week, in another state Obama is fighting for this year, Obama also courted the Big-Birders.

“I just want to make sure I got this straight,” the president said of Romney at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street…Thank goodness somebody is finally cracking down on Big Bird. Who knew that he was responsible for all these deficits?… Elmo has got to watch out.

Carrying the cause into another week, the Obama campaign last night announced a new 30-second TV spot with a cable play planned for the comedy-show zone.

The Obama campaign ad opens with Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay, “criminals… gluttons of greed.” And who is the “evil genius towering over them?” the ad asks. “One man has the guts to say so:” Romney, repeating the name Big Bird, Big Bird. Then comes the Sesame Street icon: “Big, yellow, a menace to our economy.”

Romney knows — the cartoonish ad says — “it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about. It’s Sesame Street.”

At a fundraising concert in San Francisco last night, Obama was still having fun with the Sesame Street cast, saying: “Elmo has been seen in a white Suburban.” The audience roared at the allusion to O.J. Simpson’s televised slow-speed police chase in what was actually a white Bronco.

And again today, in Columbus, Ohio: “Elmo’s making a run for the border,” Obama told his campus crowd, “and Elmo’s hiding in the trash can.”

Twitter lighted up over it all (what does a bird say?).

The trap was opened.

The Romney campaign today accused Obama of missing the big economic picture.

“I just find it troubling that the president’s message, the president’s focus 28 days from Election Day is Big Bird,” Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters aboard Romney’s campaign plane this morning. “The governor is going to focus acutely on jobs and the economy and what we can do to create a better more prosperous future.”

And the president, it turned out, was going to find no support from “the neighborhood” where Big Bird and Elmo live.

“Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns,” the workshop said in a statement issued “from the neighborhood” at its Web site today. “We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down.”

All the ready and free publicity surrounding the feathery creature from Muppet Central casting makes for a good laugh, while serving to remind people about a debate that was no joke for the president’s ratings. Since the Denver debate, Romney has gained in opinion polling, his favorable ratings growing in ABC News’ survey as well as Pew’s, and Obama has slipped.

With the first report of likely voters surveyed by Gallup today, a survey that ran Oct. 2-8, Romney took a two-point lead over Obama among those most likely to vote. For Romney, Pew, Gallup and ABC alike have registered a bona-fide debate bump.

And the president has kept reminding people of it.





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