The Global Politics of Sesame Street

Mitt Romney's 'Big Bird' moment was the biggest punchline from the first Presidential debate, but it underestimates how important to U.S. policy the muppet really is.

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Last week’s inaugural presidential debate left several questions in viewers’ minds: What happened to President Obama’s public speaking skills? Why couldn’t debate moderator Jim Lehrer get either candidate to listen to him? And would Mitt Romney really fire Big Bird?

“I love Big Bird,” Romney told Lehrer, saying he’d cut funding to public broadcasting to tackle the growing deficit. “But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things [we'd have to] borrow money from China to pay for.”

(MORE: The 9 Best Tweets from the First Obama-Romney Debate)

Of all the news that came out of the debate, it was the Big Bird comment that’s had the most legs. On Thursday, Obama joked that he was happy someone was “finally getting tough on Big Bird.” Public broadcasting personalities spoke up to criticize Romney’s statement, including astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and former Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton. Rick Santorum, among other conservatives, rallied to Romney’s defense.  “I’ve voted to kill Big Bird in the past,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan.  “That doesn’t mean I don’t like Big Bird. I mean, you can kill things and still like them, maybe to eat them, I don’t know.” By the weekend the Big Bird moment had been immortalized in a Saturday Night Live skit; by Tuesday, it was an Obama attack ad.

But the issue is actually a lot more politically complicated than Romney’s statement or those of his critics would indicate. Romney’s Big Bird policy not only raises issues about federal funding for public broadcasting and early child education but also America’s position in the world. It’s possible that Romney may even want to consider a strategic partnership with the feathered muppet.

Sesame Street is a great example of American soft power,” says Joseph Nye, former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  “It attracts others to us, and costs very little. It is interesting that Romney singled out that program for cutting, since his book has a page or two on the importance of American soft power. Maybe he forgot?”

(MORE: Our 10 Favorite Sesame Street Moments)

In fact, in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney devotes several pages to the topic, admitting that soft power is “real power” and that it “can and does affect world events.” Soft power is relatively inexpensive, he notes elsewhere, can help “promote freedom” and “may spare us from the tragedy and cost of armed conflict.” According to No Apology, the U.S. is currently failing to live up to its “soft power potential.”

And soft power doesn’t get any softer and cuddlier than Big Bird and his fellow Sesame Street residents. According to the Kathleen McCartney, dean at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, Big Bird policy abroad has a massive impact: the show is seen in some 150 countries. McCartney called Big Bird and his friends the “informal educator of the world.”

“As a citizen and developmental psychologist I believe we should invest in Sesame Street because it is cost effective,” McCartney said. “It’s about preventing educational failure.”

(MORE: Save Big Bird! Will Romney’s Threats End up Boosting PBS Fundraising?)

While public broadcasting is a common target of political mud-slinging during campaigns —  conservatives have long attacked PBS for its perceived liberal bias, and presidents dating back to Richard Nixon have attempted to slash or cut its funding entirely — Big Bird himself usually isn’t. The 8’ 2″ muppet has never registered with any party and tries to work with both Democrats and Republicans, according to Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of Sesame Workshop.

“Sesame Workshop has worked with USAID in areas all around the world in every administration,” Westin said. “Regardless of who is in the administration, we hope the merits and impacts of the work we’ve done would allow us to continue.”

Some of those initiatives include 30 unique, localized versions of the beloved children’s program, which often include indigenous versions of muppets.  South Africa’s Takalani Sesame reaches over two million young children throughout the country and includes Kami, a “fun-loving” muppet “who happens to be HIV-positive.”

(MORE: Which Presidential Debate Drinking Game Is Right for You?)

In 2011, the State Department announced a partnership with Sesame Workshop to produce programming in Afghanistan in both the Dari and Pashto languages. Baghch-e-Simsim was created in partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and is aimed at teaching “literacy, math, school readiness, and life skills with a special emphasis on girl’s education, diversity, and cultural awareness.” U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker attended the premiere and praised the program for helping to show “children the world around them.”

Occasionally, Big Bird policy has even taken a more political turn.  After Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations General Assembly in 2011, congress withheld over $190 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. This figure included funding for the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, known as Shara’a Simsim.

In June, Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street met a similar demise.  The USAID cut all funding after allegations of fraud against the Pakistani producers.  Faizaan Peerzada, chief executive of the production company that ran Sim Sim Hamara, told TIME in June that the allegations of fraud were false and that he thought the show’s shutdown was in response to deteriorating U.S.-Pakistani ties. U.S. Government officials have denied this.

(MORE: Pakistan Sesame Street Loses $20 Million in U.S. Funding)

But overall, Sesame Street‘s diplomatic balance sheet shows more hits than misses. In 2002, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stopped by the show to resolve a heated dispute over whether Grover or Elmo would be the one to sing the alphabet song. (Annan’s solution: “sing it together.”)  Former President Bill Clinton met with HIV-positive muppet Kami in 2006 to encourage parents to talk to their children about AIDS, while telling everyone that it’s okay to hug someone who is HIV positive.  President Obama helped the Workshop celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2009. Even Nixon was, in his own way, pro-Big Bird: In 1970 the then-President praised the program for “opening up opportunities for every youngster, particularly during his first five years of life.”

Indeed, Romney may have gone further out on a limb by calling out Big Bird than even he had realized. When the former Massachusetts governor goes head-to-head with President Obama in a foreign policy debate on Oct. 22 — a topic many say is not his strongest suit, despite a fairly well received foreign policy speech on Monday — he may wish he’d taken a more nuanced view on Sesame Street’s soft power. Indeed, he might want to open his remarks with the letter “S” — for “Sorry, Big Bird.”

MORE: How Romney Finally Satisfied Conservatives: By Winning

WATCH: Romney vs. Obama: Whose ‘Gangnam Style’ Parody Video Is Better?

53 comments
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Danzig83
Danzig83

Mitt Romney's son, Tagg Romney, has been  engaged in a contract with a surrogate mother with the stipulations that if the child being carried was not up to the Romney's specifications, that the Romney family would have the final say if the child would be aborted or not. In other words the Romney family used their money to buy the power to end a human life, something that Mitt Romney has spoken out against vehemently in the past. 

Danzig83
Danzig83

Mitt Romney's son, Tagg Romney, has been  engaged in a contract with a surrogate mother with the stipulations that if the child being carried was not up to the Romney's specifications, that the Romney family would have the final say if the child would be aborted or not. In other words the Romney family used their money to buy the power to end a human life, something that Mitt Romney has spoken out against vehemently in the past. 

InformNow
InformNow

The show I think of when I see Obama is "Hoarders"!

So as par, Big Gov Luv Obama mocks the cutting of needless government spending!

If Obama WON'T cut Big Bird, how can you trust him to cut at all and deal with the 16 Trillion in debt?

Barack Obama, HOARDER!  Lives sullenly in the White House where he has to crawl all over antiquated laws, rules, regulations, and government programs that have encompassed every room and are stacked against every wall and as high as the ceiling because he just can't throw them out!  Even a tall, yellow bird is just TOO MUCH for him to let go!

Time for an INTERVENTION America!

TripleA60
TripleA60

It is a good thing Obama is not a Republican…

Obama has a no questions asked Judge, Jury and executioner list

if the BHO was a Republican the Democrats, the Left and the Media would crucify

him, calling him a murder.

Obama Withdrew a 34 man Security detail before the Embassy

attack over the objections of Ambassador Stevens. If the BHO were a Republican

the Democrats, the Left and the Media would be screaming bloody murder.

Obama ignored many pleas from Ambassador Stevens for more

security before the Embassy attacks at times not even replying to his pleas. If

the BHO were a Republican…

Obama after the attacks on our Embassy for nine days lied to

America and the world saying they knew of no danger and that it was because of

a movie. Now we know that Israel,

Egypt and Libya warned

him and even the day of the attacks Ambassador Williams notified him of the

danger. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama publicly stated he would tax the American coal industry

into bankruptcy, Recently 8 coal mines have shut down or are closing. Several

coal fired electricity plants have closed causing 1000’s of jobs. If the BHO

were a Republican...

Obama has the God dam America Rev. Wright as a 20 year

mentor and advisor. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama refuses to personally attend even after being

requested by his staff his daily security briefings. Refusing to do so even as our

Embassy burned and our Ambassador was murdered. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama has time for J Lo, the Pimp With a Limp, pretend

pirates at the White House, the View, David Letterman, a Vegas trip and a score

of celebrities to numerous to mention but does not have time to meet with world

leaders. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama since he has been in office has raised foreign aid by

80% as our economy crumbles. Most of this new aid funded the Obamas coveted Muslim

Spring. If Obama were a Republican…

Obama has an Aunt and an Uncle illegally in the United States

living off the Government teat. If the BHO were a Republican.

Obama has publicly said that nobody is entitled to success

in our country. Not entitled to the American dream.  If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama is supported by Snoopy Dogg that tweets a vile, hate

filled racist rant. If the BHO were a Republican…

This list could go on and on, the Democrats, the Left and

the Media have giving the BHO a blank check pass and excused his ineptness, problem

is… Main Stream America is not that stupid… and it

is starting to show.

TripleA60
TripleA60

It is a good thing Obama is not a Republican…

Obama has a no questions asked Judge, Jury and executioner

if the BHO was a Republican the Democrats, the Left and the Media would crucify

him, calling him a murder.

Obama Withdrew a 34 man Security detail before the Embassy

attack over the objections of Ambassador Stevens. If the BHO were a Republican

the Democrats, the Left and the Media would be screaming bloody murder.

Obama ignored many pleas from Ambassador Stevens for more

security before the Embassy attacks at times not even replying to his pleas. If

the BHO were a Republican…

Obama after the attacks on our Embassy for nine days lied to

America and the world saying they knew of no danger and that it was because of

a dick a$$ movie. Now we know that Israel,

Egypt and Libya warned

him and even the day of the attacks Ambassador Williams notified him of the

danger. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama publicly stated he would tax the American coal industry

into bankruptcy, Recently 8 coal mines have shut down or are closing. Several

coal fired electricity plants have closed causing 1000’s of jobs. If the BHO

were a Republican...

Obama has the God dam America Rev. Wright as a 20 year

mentor and advisor. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama refuses to personally attend even after being

requested by his staff his daily security briefings. Refusing to do so even as our

Embassy burned and our Ambassador was murdered. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama has time for J Lo, the Pimp With a Limp, pretend

pirates at the White House, the View, David Letterman, a Vegas trip and a score

of celebrities to numerous to mention but does not have time to meet with world

leaders. If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama since he has been in office has raised foreign aid by

80% as our economy crumbles. Most of this new aid funded the Obamas coveted Muslim

Spring. If Obama were a Republican…

Obama has an Aunt and an Uncle illegally in the United States

living off the Government teat. If the BHO were a Republican.

Obama has publicly said that nobody is entitled to success

in our country. Not entitled to the American dream.  If the BHO were a Republican…

Obama is supported by Snoopy Dogg that tweets a vile, hate

filled racist rant. If the BHO were a Republican…

This list could go on and on, the Democrats, the Left and

the Media have giving the BHO a blank check pass and excused it ineptness problem

is… Main Stream America is not that stupid… and it

is starting to show.

Author12
Author12

Seriously, an entire article on Big Bird's impact on global politics. What's next? Time proposing that Big Bird is so adept at global politics that it should replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State? Hmm. Given Clinton's abysmal performance in that role, that might not be a bad idea! Oscar the Grouch could serve out Obama's last few months, too!

Tyler Godefroy
Tyler Godefroy

I think the republicans really want to get rid of NPR and they would have to cut funding to CPB to do this, i guess big bird is collateral damage

JustAFishin
JustAFishin

Romney is the new puppet on the block.  Of course he wants to eliminate the competition. Why do you think he will start with the largest puppet?

Author12
Author12

This is what passes for an intelligent post to liberals?

Keith Richards
Keith Richards

Not an issue.  Get the f off of it.  Romney 2012.

Matthew Pieri
Matthew Pieri

The Koch Brothers can pay for a bigger military right? I don't want to.

Matthew Pieri
Matthew Pieri

Dick Cheney can pay for a needless $2 trillion defense increase.  I don't want to.

yoshimoto
yoshimoto

The US Government was not created to create shows for kids. Now, in times of prosperity, sure, spend a little extra money. But no one wants to be an adult and admit that we are broke. Broke. So, Big Bird can survive on his own on a network show. But, Obama and his followers will continue to complain like little kids who want their TV show, even though mom and dad are broke. We're more than broke - we are $16 trillion in the hole. So, are you an adult or a child when it comes to America's future and the future we will leave for our children?

Leslie65
Leslie65

I see in another article that the Sesame Street  people have asked Obama to pull an ad with a Big Bird (impostor) in it, saying they (Sesame Street) don't do politics and don't endorse anyone.  And Obama has NOT agreed to pull it!  What arrogance!  Since when do you use someone else's copyrighted property for *any* purpose without their permission?   Nice ethics.

yoshimoto
yoshimoto

When Obama resorts to tactics like this, then you know he has no substance and no plan to help this country.

libs_r_evil
libs_r_evil

nobama feels the biggest issue that he needs to address in this great country right now is DEFENDING BIG BIRD?????  And people want to say Romney is "out of touch"?  Why is nobama attacking what Romney says, instead of running ads talking about all the great things he did during his first term in office??  Oh, that's right, he CAN'T brag about his record, because it is HORRIBLE!!!!!

notwar
notwar

Big Bird appears to exemplify a liberal Democrat.  He is over 40 years old and never had a job, depended on government handouts all his life, was left to be raised by "Granny Bird", and doesn't know who his father is.

Da_bird_is_da_word
Da_bird_is_da_word

40?!  hahaa!  I am only 6!

notwar
notwar

Mentally 6 (educated at a government school?), been mooching off the government since 1970.

libs_r_evil
libs_r_evil

Never been married, either.  hhhhmmmmmmmmmmm..............

123letodc
123letodc

Big Bird made 356 millions in 2011, he could buy PBS. 

Heather Meadows
Heather Meadows

PBS demanding Obama cease all ads featuring Big Bird -- seems the president thought he owned the rights to Sesame Street.

foxnews.c om/politics/2012/10/09/obama-campaign-deploys-big-bird-in-new-ad/

Leslie65
Leslie65

And yet the arrogant man has yet to agree to pull the ads!!  Nice ethics for the president of the U.S.  

Author12
Author12

Obama and ethics do not belong in the same sentence, unless as in, "Obama has no ethics when it comes to campaigning or governing."

Harvesting
Harvesting

Who made more money then Romney and Obama combined, paid no taxes as a non profit, then gets additional funding from the federal government? PBS, again who owns the property rights to Sesame Workshop? Where does the "non profit" go? Will this one change fix all our problems? No but if this was an educational program how come the funding is not from the DOE? This is entertainment, and if you are teaching your children to read with a TV you should not have had them.

Want2bfree
Want2bfree

George Cloney and Oprah can pay for big bird?   I don't want to. 

clutchfire
clutchfire

I don't get why this is even a priority. Romney wants to cut PBS funding which amounts to 0.012% of the federal budget and ultimately benefits children, yet he's okay with giving oil companies $4B and spend trillions to blow people up half way across the world. It's not Wall Street that we have to watch out for, it's Sesame Street? How does that make sense?

lnd72
lnd72

The fact that we owe any significant debt to China should be concerning. Currently it stands at about 1.2 Trillion dollars. Continued peaceful relations with counties like China depends on our country being strong economically and militarily.

Of course the biggest concern is that we have as much debt as we have period. That still makes Romney's point about questioning what our government should fund.

dafney6
dafney6

Perhaps what is missed here is that this tirade that lead to the statement about Big Bird was meant to be Romney's chance to give specifics about his plan to move America forward.  His idea of how to reign in spending was to cut PBS which would, considering the article above on "soft power," actually cost more than we would save.  How about some real ideas of how to manage the economy.

Harvesting
Harvesting

He never stated that just cutting BB would solve our problems. He did however say that borrowing money from China to support PBS, BB is not acceptable. He state a BASIC principal that if we have to borrow for it, it should be a NEED and not a want. Somehow you think the world would end if PUBLIC funding for PBS stopped? Curious who is making money from Elmo, BB and the rest of SS?

Want2bfree
Want2bfree

Romney has given more details than obama by far.

ReturnToSanity
ReturnToSanity

US debt obligations are - by a significant 6 to 1 margin - held by US retirees over all sources from China.

But if you are hung up on China, why not ask yourself if it is smart to borrow from China to wage war in Afghanistan. The finds already spent on that war would fund PBS for a decade.

Want2bfree
Want2bfree

We don't need either but we need Obama less

Da_bird_is_da_word
Da_bird_is_da_word

Oh, President Obama is a great president!  He makes me feel like a bird!

ReturnToSanity
ReturnToSanity

People need to get beyond Big Bird, and notice what Romney really said and meant:

1) The savings generated by cutting PBS entirely is less than 1/ 1500th of the military budget this year, and 1 / 1,500,000th of our debt. Neil Degrassi Tyson said it best when he stated that cutting PBS to solve the budget is like deleting text files to clear space on a 400 GB hard drive.

2) When the US does incur debt, most of it is not from scary old China. By a margin of 6 to 1, United States retirees are a larger debt holder than China. As someone not all that far from retirement, I sincerely hope that the generations charged with keeping us alive in our old age are not completely illiterate.  Romney almost sounds like McCarthy when he talks about China, as if the 'commies' are going to storm the gate and put us all in Mao suits.

3) While Romney wast to cut the $445 million to PBS and NPR, he wants to ADD more than that to the annual military budget. Just to review basic geography, there is a huge thing called the Pacific Ocean between China and the US.  The United States has 11 active carrier groups, one carrier temporarily decommissioned for repair, and another one coming on line at about the same time that China will be able to have flight capability on their ONE carrier group. By Romney's math, we desperately need to protect ourselves from the Chinese, so we need to spend more - perhaps so that we can have 14 times the naval strength.

lnd72
lnd72

Actually, his point was not focused on PBS. That is simply a straw man argument. He was suggesting that given the deficit we should only spend money on things we *need*.

It's nice to support it, but we don't *need* to fund PBS. Those who like it can contribute. The proper level of funding for our military is another topic, and is certainly up for debate.

Da_bird_is_da_word
Da_bird_is_da_word

I cannot get past someone who said he will kill me and and all of my friends!

bytebear
bytebear

 Hey Bird!  You're a 1%er.  You get plenty of money from merchandising.  You don't need government welfare, you moocher.

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

NPR is one of the most left-wing organizations in the United States.  Their programming, when it comes to anything remotely political, is slanted so far to the left that they can't even see the center from where they stand.  As a Conservative, I resent having even $1 of my tax money spent on Liberal Propaganda such as NBR (National Biased Radio) spews daily. 

 As an example, even though they are funded by tax money, NBR refuses to investigate and tell both sides of the Global Warming Nutso stuff.  You'll never hear  a straightforward analysis of  a book like "Climate: The Counter Consensus" by Robert M. Carter on NBR!  In fact they are one of the worst sources of the present huge ball of propaganda that won't even admit that the number of scientists  who believe in anthropological (man caused) global warming is miniscule compared to the entire community of scientists.

yoshimoto
yoshimoto

Many of their stories are still about racial inequality, even though we have a black president. If they run a story where they interview both sides, they usually let the liberal side have the last say, as though we have to get the nonsense out of the way from the other side so we can get to our viewpoint. Yes, they need to go. Let the liberals fund them.

Want2bfree
Want2bfree

It was an example.  But since you still requrie big bird for your education I can understand that the concept is above your IQ 

lnd72
lnd72

The hangup on a children's TV character has missed the excellent point that Romney made about how we decide what our government funds. He said something along the lines that we should base these decisions on whether it's worth borrowing money from China to do it.

Da_bird_is_da_word
Da_bird_is_da_word

But he has a company in China called Global Tech and the workers are very young, mostly women and are paid about 20 cents a day!  They even lock the workers in the factory so they cannot leave!  He thinks this is awesome and wants to bring that to America.  I do not like this man.

bytebear
bytebear

 And factory workers are rioting against Apple, but I bet you still love your iPad, you hypocrite.