Obama Should Stop Defending Big (Bird) Government

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Yes, I know, just 0.014% of the federal budget goes to PBS. Yes, I know, it’s absurd to hear Mitt Romney imply that he can fix the deficit by squeezing Big Bird. But the Obama campaign’s post-debate pivot to Mr. Snuffleupagus’s feathery friend is just as absurd. Yes, I know, Americans like Big Bird, but they’re not so wild about Big Government. And for those of us who believe that President Obama has an impressive record to defend, should he ever decide to defend it, it’s depressing to watch his team cast the policy crossroads that is the 2012 election as a referendum on an oversized Muppet.

This isn’t just about PBS, but let’s start with PBS. I’ve argued in the past that those of us who believe the federal government can be a force for good ought to recognize that it gets a bad name butting into areas where it’s not needed.  My recent cover story on our subsidized lives made the liberal point that we rely far more on government than we realize, but also the conservative point that government has become far too ubiquitous.  When PBS supporters point out that federal subsidies provide just 12% of its revenues, they’re making a case for abolishing those subsidies. If corporations, foundations and other funding sources are covering 88% of the PBS budget, why can’t they cover 100%? If the federal assistance is such a pittance, why drag Big Bird and Barney and Downton Abbey through the political mud every year? If you have kids, you know a money machine like Sesame Street does not need the federal dole; check out this picture of my daughter’s boo-boo that I tweeted last night.

Judging from my Twitter feed, the main argument for federal cash is that it keeps public television stations alive in rural areas, where kids would otherwise be subjected to nonstop commercial crap. It reminds me of arguments from red-state politicians pushing rural airports, rural sprawl roads, rural post offices, and other largesse for economically and environmentally unsustainable communities; the liberals who love PBS don’t usually like those arguments, which tend to valorize “the heartland” at the expense of the rest of the country. In any case, Sesame Street has gone way downhill, PBS no longer holds a monopoly on good programming for kids, and the right to watch commercial-free TV does not strike me as a basic human right. If private funders feel it’s important for South Dakotans to watch Big Bird, they can make that happen with their own tax-deductible contributions.

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Of course, reasonable people can disagree about government funding for PBS. My larger point is that it’s a strange hilltop for President Obama to try to defend, given his reluctance to defend his historic push for universal health coverage, or his unprecedented investments in clean energy, or his massive stimulus bill that helped prevent a depression. Those achievements were need-to-do’s; PBS is a want-to-do. It’s no coincidence that PBS is one of the few budget items that the obfuscating Romney has publicly declared that he’d cut. Sure, Americans like Big Bird; they like Mickey Mouse, too, but they wouldn’t want to pay his salary. The implicit message behind the Big Bird attacks is that Obama will stand up to any attempts to trim government, which is bad politics, bad policy, and untrue.

Obama used to brag that “we do big things.” He often warned the Clinton Administration veterans in his White House that he didn’t intend to waste time on school uniforms. So it’s deflating to watch him running away from his record and campaigning on smallball. Some liberals say PBS subsidies are investments in education, which is a reasonable argument. But it’s odd how silent those liberals—and Obama—have been about the president’s larger investments in education, tens of billions of dollars in emergency aid that prevented hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs during the Great Recession, extra help for Head Start and the most troubled schools, massive tuition assistance for low-income students. Republicans marched in lockstep against all of those efforts. Isn’t that a bigger deal than Big Bird?

The Obama campaign seems to be recognizing that it overplayed its Muppet hand; its latest ad points out that Romney supported budgets that would slash Medicaid for nursing homes, a much more vital government function. For months, the word out of Chicago was that Obama would make sure 2012 was a choice election, and it ought to be a stark choice: clean energy versus dirty energy, health insurance for all versus repealing health insurance for all, pro-choice versus pro-life, raising taxes on the wealthy versus promising to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting anything significant. Just yesterday, Romney pledged to abolish the estate tax, which would expand the deficit to reward the heirs of billionaires and multi-millionaires like him. Now that’s worth a debate.

Romney and his party have cast themselves as the enemies of government. Obama has a powerful case to make that government can play a vital role in American progress, keeping us safe, providing a safety net, preventing economic calamity, building a prosperous future. He ought to make that case. But it’s not a case for Big Bird Government.