Friday, October 05, 2012

Who will win the Big Bird framing battle: Obama or Romney?

The Obama camp clearly understimated Mitt Romney going into the first presidential debate. No doubt seeing him as a bit of a bumbler, not too quick on his feet, Obama did not do his homework, and Romney pounded him in the debate.
No money from China for you, Big Bird!

In fact, the most memorable sound byte that came out of the debate belongs to Romney:

"I like PBS. I love Big Bird," Romney said. "But I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for".

The debate was not the first time that Romney had mentioned Big Bird on the campaign trail:

Talking to the workers of Hypertherm factory in Hanover, N.H., at a town hall on December 21, 2011, he said that while public television was of value, it would not be worth borrowing money from China for in order to subsidize. 

Romney quipped, using what was a new line at the time, "I'm not going to make Big Bird go away, but there's going to be advertising on PBS if I'm president." 

The crowd did not seem to mind, and the line stayed. He elaborated that making such cuts was along the lines of rhetoric former President John F. Kennedy might have employed - saying that instead of being a nation expecting "free stuff," Americans should be more inclined to "dig deep, work hard, and sacrifice for America."

What’s with Big Bird? Why is Romney pounding the bird in his campaign speeches?

The answer lies in the framing of the deficit by the two parties:


The United States is in debt and running a deficit. Two parties frame the situation differently to define their solutions as correct and hide their subjectivity.

Democrats frame a deficit problem as “Spending more than we take in” – or if in a particularly taxing mood “Taking in less than we spend.” The logical solution is to raise taxes, cut spending, or do both. When the problem is severe and everything is on the table you do both.

Republicans frame a deficit problem as “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” Increasing revenue then isn’t a bad solution we should avoid – its not a solution in the first place.

Either frame can be defended readily, depending on what you consider to be problematic.

Romney’s linkage of Big Bird (and thus services such as PBS, which are funded by the federal government) with the need to avoid going even more into debt with China (read: our trade enemy and not nice people), is a good example of the primacy of self-interest which lies at the heart of the conservative world view.

After all, is Big Bird really worth borrowing money from China?

If Romney succeeds in reducing the frame of the Big Bird/PBS issue to this question, he wins.

Mentioning Big Bird runs the risk of reaffirming the Romney frame of China financing federal government goodies, and this is considered by George Lakoff and others to be a No-No.
Framing Big Bird

How is the Obama camp responding to Romney’s frame?

It seems they are trying humour – and so to paint Romney as uncaring and out of touch. 

Saving Big Bird is one way to go with this counter frame.

Obama could try to use the Big Bird framing by Romney to attack Romney’s central idea of cuts, as this article suggests:


Big Bird, an iconic image, could serve as a bright yellow reminder that the Romney administration is keen on deep cuts to beloved institutions.

In August, Romney said he would eliminate funding for PBS, Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS’s parent organization, receives $444 million a year from the government.

But if Obama does take this line, he still has to wrestle with Romney’s framing: Should we borrow more money from China to pay for Big Bird just because PBS does not want to run cereal ads to raise money?

A tough frame to counteract.

1 comment :

  1. From TIME:

    But what Romney said was not a slip-up or gaffe. It wasn’t even new. Since the primaries, he’s used this language on the stump too.

    It’s an interesting tack: Romney is essentially saying, “Hey, I like the things you like too. We just can’t afford them.”

    It takes the debate out of the usual culture-warrior frame (liberals are using our money to undermine our values!) and puts it in a dollars-and-cents frame.

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