One day, he's leaning on Big Bird, and the next day it's Joe Biden. Can President Obama's campaign ever get serious? Can it afford to?
Distraction has been Obama's re-election strategy all along. Highlighting Romney gaffes, peddling empty symbols, running on picayune policies -- in this way, Obama hoped he could run out the clock until November 6.
To the president's chagrin, though, this campaign may be taking a serious turn. The major mainstream media, which has gone along with Obama so far and chased after whichever shiny object the President holds up, is not amused by the president's Big Bird ploy. But Obama has been running a Big Bird campaign all along.
After losing miserably in his first debate against a competent Republican candidate, Obama decided that Romney's mention of Big Bird and federal funding of public television was his latest "gaffe."
At first Obama probably thought that the media once again had his back. Networks pointed out that Romney had chosen badly by singling out PBS when discussing federal overspending. After all, Washington gives the Corporation for Public Broadcasting only about $450 million a year, with about $15 million ultimately going to PBS.
Meanwhile, Obama was (as usual) getting away with the same crime for which the networks indicted Romney.
Obama's plan for closing the deficit rested on ending "tax breaks" for corporate jets and companies offshoring jobs. "Fixing" the alleged corporate-jet tax break -- that is, hiking taxes on buyers of corporate jets -- would raise less than $300 million a year. That wouldn't even cover federal subsidies of the CPB. The Democratic bill to end "tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas" would raise $14 million a year. That's not even two weeks of the CPB.
Obama gets a free ride on this sort of unseriousness. He based his nominating convention largely on the false claims that Republicans were trying to outlaw contraception and "end Medicare as we know it." Meanwhile, the major media pick apart every bit of spin, every slip of the tongue, every factual error no matter how small, and every injudicious comment by Romney or Paul Ryan.
So Obama could have scored some post-debate points by knocking Romney's unserious suggestion that we reduce the deficit by cutting PBS funding. But Obama instead got even less serious. He accused Romney of killing Big Bird.
Cutting federal funding wouldn't even faze Big Bird. Sesame Workshop sits on nearly $300 million in assets and gets much more in licensing its intellectual property to toy-makers than it gets from the CPB, as Washington Examiner senior editorial writer Sean Higgins reported Wednesday.
The "kill Big Bird" line is standard Obama fare. Because Romney thinks employers should be allowed to pay employees in cash instead of contraception, Obama and allies accuse him of trying to take away women's contraception. Because Romney wants to cut Planned Parenthood's federal subsidies, Obama says Romney is waging war against the abortion provider.
So it's not new that Obama is being unserious. He's been running a Big Bird campaign all along. It's just new that everyone is noticing.
Everyone noticed that in the most serious forum of the election so far -- the first debate -- Romney schooled Obama. Team Obama objected that moderator Jim Lehrer let the candidates respond to one another too much and drill too deep on topics. The telling moment was Obama's plea: "Jim, you may want to move on to another topic." Obama suffered because the debate got too freewheeling and substantive.
Now that substantive debate is threatening to spread.
When terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Libya last month and killed the American ambassador and three others, Obama coasted on the media's eagerness to play gotcha with Romney. "Instead of scrutinizing Obama's handling of a foreign policy crisis," my Examiner colleague Phil Klein wrote, "the media has decided that the real story in Egypt and Libya is a Mitt Romney gaffe."
But in the last few days, the Obama White House has gotten some tough questions. The White House's original explanation -- that protests directed at an anti-Islam film turned deadly -- was completely false. There were no protests. This was a planned terrorist attack. Also, we now know that the ambassador had explicitly requested security before the attack, and Obama's State Department declined the request.
Suddenly, we're talking about something more serious than Romney's media strategy.
Compounding the Democrats' gravitas gap, Joe Biden has to debate Paul Ryan on Thursday. Democrats are sending to the mound a man whose chief virtue is his goofy charm, while Republicans have their budget-policy ace throwing for them.
Things are getting serious. Obama and Biden may want to move on to another topic.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.