How 'ObamaCare' Went from Smear to Cheer

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Friday marked a small but significant landmark in the now two-year history of the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" -- President Obama's team used the word "ObamaCare" -- long the preferred pejorative for the law on the right -- in a campaign e-mail to supporters and asked Twitter followers to use it, too. Retweeting users who write what they like about the bill with the hashtag #ilikeobamacare, the campaign is really pushing use of the word in a new way. (They even have a fancy graphic!) 

While it might seem like a tiny item, it's actually the latest in a long war over what that term means and who gets to uses it. It has long been, for instance, the shorthand moniker for the law preferred by the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page in headlines like ObamaCare on Drugs and ObamaCare's Contradictions. Now, Friday's effort strikes us as a pretty smart, if overdue, campaign strategy to try to make a mark on a term that has undoubtedly entered the lexicon, whether the campaign likes it or not.

In an e-mail to supporters Friday, the campaign wrote:

Today is the two-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Since then, the law that almost everyone calls Obamacare has been doing exactly what the other side has hoped it wouldn’t do: It’s been working. It’s about time we give it the love it deserves. Let everyone know: “I like Obamacare.”
And why shouldn't they use "Obamacare" to describe the bill? There's nothing immediately or obviously pejorative in the word. In fact, given the bill's very long actual name, we're kind of appreciative for an easily recognized alternative. The problem for Democrats is that conservatives really effectively claimed the term and attached it in the public's mind with negative sentiment. As Kiran Moodley wrote in a piece for The Atlantic last year on the term, conservatives, through repetition, were able to link the idea to  government intrusion and the larger Obama agenda. "Obamacare" became more than an innocent shorthand: It became a rallying cry. And to see just how effectively conservatives branded it as a negative, all one must do is recall Congressional Democrats' efforts to have it banned from tax-payer funded mass mailings. That, alone, seemed to grant conservatives that their messaging had succeeded. Obamacare was a bad word.
Signs of a new phase in the history of Obamacare came when Obama himself embraced the term in August 2011. "Folks go around saying Obamacare. That’s right — I care. … That’s their main agenda? That’s your plank? Is making sure 30 million people don’t have health insurance?" he said. But even then it felt like he was breaking some sort of taboo. 
And now we come to this present: the two-year anniversary of the law. Greg Sargent writes in The Washington Post that the president is not pushing the word because the law has grown more favorable with voters. (It hasn't, really.) But rather, it comes from the knowledge that voters aren't soon going to forget he's responsible for it. "[T]he simple fact is that this law is Obama’s number one domestic achievement. It is his. It is Obamacare," Sargent writes.
Friday's initiative strikes us as a great messaging strategy for the campaign. As we said, there's absolutely nothing inherently negative in the word "Obamacare." It now overshadows HillaryCare in the public memory simply because it actually became a law, a huge, presidency-defining law. And a lot of time has passed since the Clinton push.
Furthermore, there could be room and time for a redefinition. As Moodley reported last year in The Atlantic:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that there is no settled definition for "Obamacare" because its meaning is set by a combination of context, message and audience. In the current debate, its context evokes the negatives attached to "Hillarycare." More importantly, it is used solely as a Republican message. 
"For those whose children are able to stay on insurance," Jamieson explains, "'Obamacare' might well be something positive. However, the pro-bill forces have not cast it that way. So at the moment the term is identified with opponents because they're the ones who coined it and they're the ones who are using it."

Translation: the other side should probably start using it too. Speaking of the kid on his parent's insurance, the president's official Twitter account has retweeted (among the many responses) one woman who writes: "I like Obamacare because it allows me to stay on my parents insurance. :-) I am so grateful for the Obama plan!!!!." You can see how they hope that if their fans start tweeting and writing their postiive associations with the changes the law next to the word itself, they can start to push away the negative meaning in people's minds. Will it work? It's hard to say. It's still the right's favorite word for the law too. (Just look at some of the less Obama-friendly uses of the hashtag on Twitter today. They are legion.) But at least the campaign has recognized that no one has used the term "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" in conversation in years, so they might as well try to influence the meaning of the word the rest of us have settled for.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.