The Obama Campaign Tries to Reclaim 'Obamacare'

More

The term started as a slur, but now that it's become the standard nickname, Democrats are trying to rebrand it for their own purposes.

obamacare.banner.obama.jpg

Screenshot of BarackObama.com

The story of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's unpopularity is, to a great extent, a story about bad messaging. And the fact that the law is widely known as "Obamacare" -- by liberals and conservatives alike -- is one of the plainest examples. But today, on the second anniversary of the law, the Obama campaign is launching a counterattack, trying to turn that pejorative nickname into a positive.

Both campaign manager Jim Messina and top Obama adviser David Axelrod sent out emails today proudly using the term. Here's Messina:

Obamacare is two years old today.

Say it with me: "Obamacare."

The other side wants us to think that's a dirty word, but I love that they call it that.

The campaign created a new page on its website that lets user add their name to a list proclaiming, "I Like Obamacare" (screenshot above). The president tweeted a birthday message:

And the campaign is encouraging people to tweet using the hashtag #ILikeObamacare.

This is a BFD, because despite what Messina wrote, it hasn't just been the other side that's used "Obamacare" as a dirty word. The president's team has also avoided it assiduously. A Lexis Nexis search of presidential papers shows he's used it twice, both times quoting the other side. As far as I can determine, Press Secretary Jay Carney hasn't used it briefings either.

It's hard to imagine that any other term ever had a chance at acquiring the currency of "Obamacare." Start with the law's name: the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." As Kiran Moodley explained in this space a year ago, the more pejorative Obamacare was coined by the proposal's opponents to tie it to the failed "Hillarycare." The nickname wasn't all that accurate: the White House was conspicuously hands-off in the drafting of the bill -- too hands-off, many liberal critics complained -- and it embraced the individual mandate he'd rejected during his presidential campaign.

Still, it stuck -- partly because "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" was an obtusely long piece of bureaucratese that doesn't really say much about what the bill does. It's not memorable and pithy, like "Social Security," "Medicare," or "Medicaid." Nor does it shorten into a cutesy acronym. Try to say "PPACA." It sounds like you're hacking up a hairball. Sometimes it's been shortened to "Affordable Care Act" or ACA, but that's not much better. Objective media, and the liberal press, have stuck to "ACA" or simply the abstract "health-care reform." (At many outlets, journalists have been instructed not to use the term, because it's pejorative.) In common parlance, however, "Obamacare" became the fastest, best way for people to know what the topic at hand was, with the speaker's opinion of the law indicated by tone of voice.

There's always been a counterargument, which Joe Scarborough explained: "If this health care plan is the greatest thing ever, why are Democrats so offended when you call it 'Obamacare'? Because you got 'Obama.' They like that word. And you got 'care.' Care is a good word. And you put them together and suddenly it's a vulgarity." There's a whiff of sophistry to that -- surely he understood that the president's supporters were recoiling from a term used to tar him. But the campaign has apparently now decided to embrace that logic. Although the president still faces an uphill battle in convincing Americans that the law is a positive, but if the Supreme Court doesn't strike the law down and Republicans can't garner the muscle to repeal it, it's likely to go down as his greatest legislative achievement. Having his name attached will someday be a badge of honor, they assume. (Imagine if Medicare was known as Lyndoncare today -- perhaps Johnson's reputation would be better.)

Yet Team Obama seems divided. While Messina and Axelrod were blasting out their "I Like Obamacare" missives, the White House seemed to be tiptoeing around it. While both the president and vice president spoke today, neither lauded the law. Joe Biden mentioned it without using its name, much less the term "Obamacare." On the White House blog, Megan Slack's post celebrating the anniversary also stuck to the official name, as did Jay Carney during his press briefing.

It's a question of different audiences: the campaign wants to get its supporters charged up about the law, while recognizing that the name remains somewhat toxic in the population at large. But the campaign's embrace of the term, while partly a surrender, seems like a first step. Team Obama may have lost the naming battle, but they're still hopeful about ultimate victory in the health-care war.

Jump to comments
Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In