Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., included a first in debate history: a sitting president mentioning Big Bird and Planned Parenthood in the same sentence.
President Barack Obama—facing intense pressure to redeem his lackluster performance after the first presidential debate—cited the Sesame Street character and the nation’s largest abortion provider to describe Gov. Mitt Romney’s plan to cut federal spending: “We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood. …”
The Big Bird reference stems from the first debate, when Gov. Romney joked that he liked the children’s character, but added that he would cut federal subsidies to PBS—the network that airs Sesame Street. (The federal government gives about $445 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting every year.) The Obama campaign responded with an advertisement featuring the big yellow bird that mocked Romney for his comments.
(For his part, Big Bird has asked to stay out of presidential politics: Sesame Workshop—the company that produces Sesame Street—released a statement asking the Obama campaign to drop the commercial.)
The president’s comments about Big Bird and Planned Parenthood were only a small part of last night’s contentious town hall-style debate, but they highlighted a bigger question that both candidates must answer: How do we regain control of a runaway budget that has led to record deficits and threatens severe economic havoc?
To answer that question, President Obama returned in part to a familiar tune: wealthy citizens should pay more taxes to raise more revenue. The president also proposed investing in green energy to both create more jobs and address rising fuel prices.
He said less about serious problems such an approach has already encountered with companies like Solyndra—the green energy company that squandered a $535 million federal loan and fired nearly 1,000 workers.
Romney suggested bolstering small business, including plans to make tax rates favorable to companies that create jobs. He also repeated his plan to cut tax rates across the board by 20 percent, though he still struggled to explain exactly how he would cut the rate and ensure federal deficits would not grow. When moderator Candy Crowley of CNN asked what he would do if the math didn’t add up, Romney replied, “Of course it will add up.”
That may be true, but the former Massachusetts governor still faces the challenge to communicate specifics during the final stretch of the presidential campaign.
Romney became more specific on what turned out to be one of the most heated moments of the debate: A discussion on the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed four Americans.
The GOP candidate pointed out that the Obama administration didn’t label the assault a terrorist attack for more than a week after it happened. The president balked and insisted that he called it an act of terror during a speech the day after the attack. Debate moderator Crowley backed the president in a moment that drew applause from the audience.
But a quick look at the speech transcript reveals the truth: Obama spoke in general terms about the assault and concluded with the phrase “no acts of terror will ever shake this nation.” As Romney pointed out, the president did not label the assault a terrorist attack by a terrorist organization.
Indeed, for more than a week after the attack, White House officials insisted that the assault stemmed from protests against an anti-Islamic video. The State Department has said it never believed that was the case.
While Romney was right, he wasn’t as sharp during the exchange as some conservatives hoped. The unfolding scandal over the Benghazi attacks—including congressional testimony that the State Department denied requests for more security before the attack—represents a major foreign policy failure for the Obama administration. Tuesday night’s debate stopped short of that discussion, though next Monday’s contest, the final debate before the election, promises to return to the subject of foreign policy.
For his part, the president returned to a discussion of Planned Parenthood at least four times during the debate, highlighting Republican calls to cut funding to the organization and suggesting that Romney isn’t concerned about women’s healthcare or access to contraceptives.
Romney denied that accusation, but he didn’t mention the hard numbers that Planned Parenthood doesn’t often mention: The federal government gives the financially robust organization about $363 million a year. The group’s annual revenues exceed $1 billion.
With Monday’s debate focusing on foreign policy, the subject might not come up again in that forum, but if the president keeps mentioning the organization, the Romney campaign faces a challenge and an opportunity: Speak clearly about what Planned Parenthood does, point out how much money they make doing it, and ask if that’s where taxpayers want their money to go—especially when federal deficits have already reached breathtaking levels that can’t continue without massive consequences.