• Click here to watch the Obama campaign's TV ad featuring Big Bird.
A passing quip about Big Bird in the presidential debate a week ago has evolved into a full-fledged campaign flap.
President Barack Obama's campaign on Tuesday deployed the beloved “Sesame Street” character in a satirical TV ad, which mocked GOP challenger Mitt Romney for having said he would cut off public broadcasting's government funds if elected.
That quickly ruffled feathers.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit charity that sponsors “Sesame Street” and other childhood education programs, disavowed the ad and asked that it be halted.
Romney dismissed the spot as trivializing, although he was the one who brought Big Bird into the national political conversation in last week's debate. Asked to describe how he would cut federal spending, he had said, “I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS” but added, “I like PBS. I love Big Bird.”
That gave national prominence to Romney's vow, a staple of his campaign appearances for months, to cut off public broadcasting's subsidy. Social media lit up. Users posted photos online of Big Bird appearing down on his luck or searching for work. People dressed as Big Bird have followed Romney to campaign events.
And last weekend, the real Big Bird made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” saying, “I feel like I'm famous now. I was walking down the street the other day and felt like everyone recognized me.”
The Obama camp, smarting from critics who said the president seemed lackluster in the debate, has capitalized on “Sesame Street” fever. At campaign appearances every day since the debate, Obama has mocked Romney's remark.
“He said he'd bring down our deficit by going after what has been the biggest driver of our debt and deficits over the last decade — public television, PBS,” Obama said Monday in San Francisco. “Elmo has been seen in a white Suburban. He's driving for the border. Oscar is hiding out in his trash can. We're cracking down on them.”
The satirical TV ad, scheduled to air on national broadcast and cable stations, upped the ante. Posted online Tuesday, it shows images of convicted financiers, including Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay, suggesting that Romney believes Big Bird is responsible for their crimes.
“Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy,” the narrator intones. “Mitt Romney knows it's not Wall Street you have to worry about. It's Sesame Street.”
The show's sponsor, for one, was not amused.
“Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns,” the group said in a two-sentence statement. “We have approved no campaign ads and, as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down.”
An Obama campaign spokesman said the request was under review.
Romney, campaigning Tuesday morning in Iowa, dismissed the ad as inconsequential and suggested that Obama was focusing on trivial matters rather than the economy.
“These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” he said. “I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future.”
Big Bird is only the latest star in a campaign proxy war over a larger issue.
In 2008 it was “Joe the Plumber,” or Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohioan whose question at an Obama appearance set off a national debate over tax policy and government spending.
Now it's the bird's turn to sit center stage in the debate over federal expenditures in tough times.
Public broadcasting has long been a target of scorn among conservatives who see it as having a liberal bias and being unworthy of federal subsidy. Romney has suggested that shows like “Sesame Street” should be supported by advertising, like other television fare.
Obama, in turn, has tried to frame the controversy as one of conservative overreach and misplaced priorities, suggesting that Romney would cut funds for children's programming while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.
PBS, the nonprofit network of some 350 public television stations nationwide, gets part of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit that Congress set up in 1967 to distribute funds to public media. The amount this year totaled $445 million. PBS said after last week's debate that public broadcasting receives about one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.