During the 2012 United States presidential election debates, presidential candidate Mitt Romney referenced Big Bird in relation to funding for PBS, when addressing moderator Jim Lehrer:
"I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That's number one."
U.S. Presidential incumbent Barack Obama commented on the remarks at multiple stops. First, in Denver after the debate, on October 4th, he jokingly commented "Thank goodness someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird. We didn't know Big Bird was leading the federal deficit." In Fairfax, Virginia on October 5, he addressed the issue again in similar language. "For all you moms and kids out there, don't worry: somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. Rounding him up. Elmo's got to watch out too. Governor Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but bring the hammer down on Sesame Street." (YouTube)
Romney clarified that, "I'm not going to kill Big Bird, but there's going to be ads on PBS, to pay for Big Bird." He also commented "He's going to have to get used to Kellogg's Corn Flakes."
Romney has mentioned Big Bird (as well as Bert and Ernie) in his campaign remarks as early as December 28, 2011.
Sesame Street has been a proud partner of PBS for 43 years, and is dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States. At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential. We highly value that connection. Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization. We do not comment on political campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird.
Sherri Westin of Sesame Workshop appeared on CNNThursday morning, October 4th, to clarify:
Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS. So, we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship. So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird—that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.
Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Piers Morgan, Today, and Good Morning America all offered appearance spots to Big Bird. While it was said that Sesame Workshop declined all offers, Big Bird did make a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 6, 2012. Avoiding any direct political statement, the bird discussed all of the tweets he got and his sudden fame (how everyone now looks at him when he goes down the street, when he used to be able to blend in like any other eight-foot tall talking bird) and made one non-partisan political joke (about how debates are really enjoyed by "de fishes").
On October 9, in response to the Obama campaign ad using Big Bird, Sesame Workshop issued a second statement:
Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.
The Obama campaign released an ad on YouTube, titled "Big Bird", focusing on the comments versus the "Wall Street" issue. The video features two actual Sesame Street clips: one of Big Bird stating "It's me, Big Bird" and another of him sleeping in his nest.
The ad prompted a response from Sesame Workshop, asking for its removal and reitierating its nonpartisan stance: "Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down."
In turn, the Republican National Committee, on the official GOP blog, has referred to the Obama campaign's reactions to Romney's comment as "Big Bird Backfire," suggesting he should be spending more time on more important issues.
During the debate, "Big Bird" was one of Google's top four rising search terms (the others were "Simpson Bowles", "Dodd Frank", and "Who is winning the debate").