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ObamaCare and the Lexicon of American Politics

John Cole has chided me, via Twitter, for the use of “wingnut terminology” in referring to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by the shorthand “ObamaCare.”  He suggests, “Why not call it HCR, like the media?”

Oddly, during the entire time it was up for debate, I routinely did just that, using variants of “healthcare reform,” “health care reform,” and “HCR.”  But, now that it’s passed into law, it’s no longer a reform proposal but rather a government program.  “ObamaCare,” it seems to me, is a perfectly breezy, pithy, and nonpejorative label for that program.

Oftentimes, because of the 24/7 spin cycle that has characterized American politics over the past couple of decades, we’re left either with the propagandistic bill titles given by the proponents or the scaremongering nicknames of the opponents.  Neither are particularly helpful.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a great example of propagandistic bill naming.  What heartless bastard could oppose protecting patients?  And who doesn’t want care to be affordable?  That the act in question will provide very little in the way of protection and even less to ensure affordability, though, makes it a rather silly name.   And PPACA doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue as an acronym or initialism.

ObamaCare, by contrast, is short, memorable, and nonjudgmental.  It has a nice parallelism with Medicare, a very popular program with similar goals, and correctly identifies the president who pushed it through Congress.   And, even as one who opposed Obama’s election and the passage of this act, the term “ObamaCare” doesn’t conjure up negative imagery.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. ObamaCare sounds like a term someone would use, hoping it fails miserably, and wanting people to remember who did it.

    So it is not non-judgmental. Quite the contrary.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    But it didn’t fail – it passed. And it’s not my fault they didn’t give it a better name.

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  3. Mr Evilwrench says:

    I don’t think there’s any danger we’re going to forget who did it when it does fail miserably.

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  4. sniffy says:

    I’m betting that Michael has used the phrase “Bush tax cuts” more than once in the past, with the intent that people remember who was responsible for something he opposed politically.

    Which is not non-judgmental. Quite the contrary.

    Man up, Michael. Elections have consequences, and so does poor legislation.

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  5. Brian Knapp says:

    I agree with James that it is perfectly acceptable, and I mostly support the measure. And I agree that it is a better name than PPACA. They could have named it with an acronym that is more conducive to english (alternating consonant-vowel, and iambic, like HIPAA), but they didn’t.

    Like most words, society’s use of it will determine the meaning and that will likely change over time.

    I believe that it may have started pejorative and propagandist, but I think that’s actually started to turn into something more neutral, if anything, for a lack of competition. Where it goes from here, well, we shall see.

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  6. thomasblair says:

    Mr. Evilwrench,

    Is it Eastasia or Eurasia we’ve always been at war with?

    Things have a way of falling down the memory hole, especially when they’re pushed. (And I just realized I used “memory hole” without consciously thinking of 1984, even with a reference in the previous sentence.)

    I like the name Obamacare.

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  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Obamacare will likely become an example of unbridled power, unworkable solutions, and the folly of government in general. You can’t fix every problem through legislation. You can make them worse.

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  8. Herb says:

    We could start calling it Romneycare, I guess.

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  9. John Burgess says:

    Well, the Washington Post and NY Times use ‘Obamacare’ and not only while quoting critics. I think the name just stuck to it. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, we’ll learn soon enough.

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  10. anjin-san says:

    > the folly of government in general.

    All folly. The U.S. Armed Forces that protect our country, the roads we drive to work every day, the internet we have because the government developed it, a lawful and orderly society.

    Folly.

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t have a problem with ObamaCare. I also had no problem with “Star Wars.” I don’t dismiss the propaganda value of controlling the terminology because, let’s face it, people are idiots and that kind of thing does have an impact. But I dislike telling writers they have to use this or that term, so long as it’s not absurdly off-base.

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  12. Ja'far says:

    I think your justification for using “ObamaCare” is perfectly reasonable. However, I also think the term is very much associated with anti-Obama contempt. Maybe in the future that connotation will be diluted as both advocates and detractors use the word more equally and it becomes more value-neutral. At present, it’s a safe-bet those using the term are critics, so it’s not surprising that association was made here.

    As a side note, I wish we could scrap the formal naming of the bills and simply call them by their sponsors’ names or, blandly, their formal code.

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  13. Dodd says:

    The Venn diagram of people who whinge about the term “ObamaCare” and the people who happily refer to tea partiers as “teabaggers” would show an almost perfect overlap. Likewise people who get riled up whenever anyone drops the “-ic” off of the word “Democrat.” Apparently at some point in the distant past Rush Limbaugh advised the latter locution, therefore (since everyone to the left of Mike Castle is a mind-numbed robot slavishly following Rush’s commands) anyone who uses it is intentionally trying to insult all well-meaning, America-loving Democrats.

    It’s certainly true that Obama outsourced the heavy lifting on his own signature policy to Pelosi and Reid. But he championed it, accepted what they cobbled together, and signed it — even though it included provisions (like, say, the individual mandate) that he campaigned against. So he owns it. Without him it never would have happened.

    “ObamaCare” is simply an utterly typical example of our penchant for giving large, complex policies pithy, memorable nicknames. Complaining about its use seems most often to be a means of deflecting the discussion away from the substance surrounding the nickname. In short, such carping is an indicator of someone not to be taken seriously.

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  14. Trumwill says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with PPACA (Puh-Pack-Ah), except that people outside of our circles won’t know what you’re talking about. Say Obamacare, though, and they know exactly what you’re talking about.

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  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama don’t care……just talks $hit, spends other peoples money and blames Bush….

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  16. Franklin says:

    Whether ObamaCare is a pejorative mainly depends on what you perceive the user’s opinion of Obama to be. (Joyner disagrees with many Obama policies but finds him likable and well-intentioned, so Joyner’s usage of the term ObamaCare is not meant to be insulting.)

    Related, we were just talking here the other day about professors wanting to be called professor, and my opinion was that you generally call people or groups by the name that they prefer to be called. Attempting to transfer this rule to the current debate over what to call PPACA/HCR/ObamaCare, I’m at a loss, since 1000 sheets of paper don’t give a rat’s ass what they are called.

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  17. john personna says:

    Because PelosiCare was already taken?

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  18. Stan says:

    Like HillaryCare, using ObamaCare tells people where you’re coming from. For example, when Joyner uses it you know immediately that he’s opposed to widening access to health care but won’t give any substantive reasons. You then know that you should read his post if you want your prejudices confirmed, but not if you’re interested in policy. In this sense, ObamaCare is a convenient word.

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  19. John Burgess says:

    @Stan: You still need to explain NY Times and Washington Post use of the term. In their own editorials and reporting. As I said above, it’s not just when they quote opponents to the plan, but their own. Last time I looked, there was not great, unthinking animus toward the President in those papers. Perhaps your convenient tool isn’t all that useful? Or, perhaps it exactly is.

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  20. Stan says:

    John Burgess, you’ve got a point if the Times and Post use the term in their reporting. If instead it’s just being used by conservative columnists, then I stand by my original post. I feel the same way when my side labels opponents of the President’s policies as racists.

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  21. Aidan says:

    I don’t think this was your intention, but the vast majority of people who use the term “Obamacare” are doing so pejoratively to conjure up negative imagery. The implication is government takeover of health insurance, paternalism, and an ego trip of one man declaring himself in charge of people’s health care. The final product wasn’t Obama’s original proposal and it went through a lot of modifications to satisfy the whims of individual senators. Obviously you and most people who read Outside the Beltway know these things but to the general public, Obamacare is a misleading term and I’d imagine it was seized on because Frank Luntz found out it polls extremely negatively. It was a pet peeve of mine when other students in my US Health Politics class referred to it as Obamacare in their papers and presentations.

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  22. Aidan says:

    Just read Dodd’s comment and he makes a couple of good points – Obama certainly owns the bill whether he originally supported all of its provisions or not, and anything called “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” was bound to get a shorthand nickname. I still think “Obamacare” is intended to have negative connotations so I avoid using it. I think the OTB readership is smart enough to know what he means, but I also think its smart enough to understand what he means if he called it the Affordable Care Act or ACA or HCR.

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  23. TG Chicago says:

    Funny that Joyner explains why he doesn’t want to call it the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”, but never gets around to answering Cole’s actual question: “Why not call it HCR, like the media?”

    Why would you write an entire post that’s ostensibly a response to a question without responding to the question?

    Here’s another question you can avoid: how many supporters of the act call it ObamaCare? How many detractors do? When you see the disparity there, you’ll see that calling it ObamaCare is a clear way to express that you didn’t like it. If that’s your intent, fine. But be honest about it.

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  24. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago “Why would you write an entire post that’s ostensibly a response to a question without responding to the question?”

    Umm, I do that in the first paragraph after posting the question:

    Oddly, during the entire time it was up for debate, I routinely did just that, using variants of “healthcare reform,” “health care reform,” and “HCR.” But, now that it’s passed into law, it’s no longer a reform proposal but rather a government program. “ObamaCare,” it seems to me, is a perfectly breezy, pithy, and nonpejorative label for that program.

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  25. Trumwill says:

    Why would you write an entire post that’s ostensibly a response to a question without responding to the question?

    Except where he did, in the second paragraph. I agree with him on that point. HCR is an issue and a proposal. The PPACA is a law and needs a separate designation, if only to differentiate it from previous and future health care reform proposals. When discussing the law specifically, the media should be referring to it as PPACA or ACA, not HCR.

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  26. Eric Florack says:

    But it didn’t fail – it passed.

    Is that the only measure of success? Seems a bit narrow in the thought department.
    Or should we be thinking about the success or the more likely lack of it, once put into practice? Once people have to suffer with it, I suppose and expect it will be a derogatory term… but not a slur.

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  27. anjin-san says:

    > Or should we be thinking about the success or the more likely lack of it, once put into practice?

    Perhaps we should see how it does in practice once implemented, instead of declaring it a near-certain failure ahead of time on strictly ideological grounds.

    Seems a bit narrow in the thought process.

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  28. TG Chicago says:

    @James Joyner: “now that it’s passed into law, it’s no longer a reform proposal but rather a government program.”

    That doesn’t in any way answer why you can’t call it HCR. Plenty of people still do. Including Doug Mataconis:

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/federal-judge-dismisses-lawsuit-challenging-health-care-reform-law/

    In fact, the exact phrase “health care reform law” comes up with over 700 hits from a Google News search in the past month alone.

    http://news.google.com/news/search?pz=1&cf=all&ned=us&hl=en&q=%22health+care+reform+law%22&cf=all&as_qdr=m&as_drrb=q

    Nothing in the acronym HCR indicates that it can only apply to proposals rather than laws. You just made that up that.

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  29. TG Chicago says:

    @Trumwill “Except where he did, in the second paragraph.”

    Wrong; he did not. Cole said, “Why not call it HCR, like the media?” As I showed, the media has indeed called it HCR in over 700 instances in the last month alone. Joyner never spoke to that.

    “The PPACA is a law and needs a separate designation, if only to differentiate it from previous and future health care reform proposals.”

    If you truly think that that distinction is required, then I’m sure you would agree that “ObamaCare” would be inadequate, since it’s possible that President Obama (or even perhaps someone else named Obama) may come up with a future health care reform proposal.

    But when I see a headline such as “Court Fight Over Health-Care Reform Shifts to Florida”, I do not feel any confusion about which Health-Care Reform law they are referring to. Do you really think this is unclear?

    http://www.businessweek.com/lifestyle/content/healthday/647579.html

    I also did not feel any confusion when I read the headline to the Mataconis post I linked above. I don’t think anybody was confused, so I don’t find that to be a compelling rationale against HCR.

    That said, there’s nothing wrong with PPACA or ACA.

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  30. Eric Florack says:

    Perhaps we should see how it does in practice once implemented, instead of declaring it a near-certain failure ahead of time on strictly ideological grounds.

    Does the universally negative experience of other countries who’ve tried similar ideas count, in your mind, I wonder? Apparently not, since you must have been aware of them, and ignoring them for the purpose of promotion here.

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  31. An Interested Party says:

    “Does the universally negative experience of other countries who’ve tried similar ideas count, in your mind, I wonder?”

    “Universally negative experience” only to people who think like you…

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  32. anjin-san says:

    > universally negative experience

    I have a lot of relatives in Europe who are pretty happy with their health care systems. You will have to do better than pulling nonsense statements out of your ass and proclaiming them as some sort of unvarnished truth. I suspect you are simply too limited to do this, but I continue to hope you will surprise me someday.

    Allow me to ask you a serious question. Suppose that, God forbid, you a member of your immediate family suffers a catastrophic illness or accident. Do you have any idea how much daily nursing care costs? Retrofitting a home for a wheelchair? If your income stopped suddenly tomorrow, AND you had these additional costs, what would you do? Do you honestly have the resources to face this sort of thing without government assistance>

    These sort of questions face honest, hard-working Americans every day.

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  33. Christian says:

    “Obamacare” is right-wing boilerplate at this point, and if you want to “take it back” fine, but you can’t even answer why not call it what is, HCR? So by definition every new law should be amended with the name of the President attached? It’s lazy and allows the GOP to again dictate semantics. Obamacare is a clearly dismissive term as any perusal of the right-wing intelligencia (sic) sites or essays can affirm.

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  34. km says:

    I defy you to find the term ObamaCare used in anything but a pejorative manner 99% of the time.

    The term has become part of the right-wing noise machine, and you know it.

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  35. Steven says:

    I use “Obamacare”, but don’t have a problem with “PPACA”, which I’ve been pronouncing like “alpaca” but with a “pee” instead of the “al”.

    I find the term “health care reform” objectionable, at least to describe “that which Republicans would like to repeal”. It buys into the straw man dynamic Obama set up, in which everyone who opposed his particular law opposes “health care reform” in general, presumably thinking the status quo ante was perfect.

    Mind you, it’s a great deal better than those who talk about conservatives wanting to “repeal health care,” as though Obama and Pelosi met for lunch one day and invented the concept of medicine, which conservatives immediately deemed unnatural.

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  36. David Tomlin says:

    “Likewise people who get riled up whenever anyone drops the “-ic” off of the word “Democrat.” Apparently at some point in the distant past Rush Limbaugh advised the latter locution . . .”

    Republican politicians were doing that long before Rush, and it was clearly intended to be pejorative.

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  37. Brad J Shannon says:

    If you want to win in politics, you use propaganda. Propaganda is not inherently a bad thing. People need to get over it. The public cannot be persuaded by facts alone, because the public doesn’t pay enough attention to any single issue’s facts. So, you give them hints. You use moral language that speaks to different sets of political principles. Individuals who largely agree with the principles know that they can support one side or the other without having to get into the hairy details. This is why many voters, regardless of interest and education, vote solely based on partisanship: they reason that, because they support the principles espoused by one side, they can trust it to make the “correct” decisions on specific policy proposals and issues that come up.

    The argument against propaganda, or propagandistic bill naming, claims the moral high ground. As in, it’s wrong to attempt to persuade people in an unfair way. Granted! Totally granted! But what’s unfair about providing information in the ways that people are willing to accept it? Most people collect political knowledge in bits and pieces from the media and elites — bill names, headlines, sound bites, chyrons — through the frames that said entities choose. Does Joyner expect voters to read the newspaper every day? Does he think voters should actually “learn the facts,” as if facts are impartial, unbeholden to the context and framing given them? Well, sorry. That’s not reality. Voters are going to vote with or without any information. If you don’t want to use propagandistic techniques, then most voters will have zero information.

    Propaganda is a tool. Saying it’s a bad thing is analogous to saying that a hammer is wrong because it can hit your thumb. Bad propaganda looks like FOX News, actively misinforming. Good propaganda looks like the phrase “Social Security.”

    So often it is the Left that complains about Democrats using “propaganda” techniques, or more accurately, public relations techniques. You know why Democrats keep losing elections? Because we don’t use the communications strategies and tactics that reflect reality — the way people process reality — while our Republican opponents do, and have been for 40 years.

    If James Joyner wants to ignore psychology and cognitive science that’s been around for half a century in favor of a moral high ground that doesn’t exist, he’s welcome to do so. There’s a new generation of political operatives coming. We’re studying multidisciplinary approaches, we’re learning from the Left’s mistakes, and we’re planning to actually win elections.

    Or at least I am. Sheesh, I hope I’m not alone.

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  38. James Joyner says:

    Brad,

    I understand that propaganda works and thus why it’s used. That doesn’t mean I can’t do my best to recognize it and reject it.

    We use all manner of propaganda in political speech. Some sticks, some doesn’t.

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  39. Brad J Shannon says:

    [sorry if previous comment was more vitriolic than necessary]

    Recognizing and rejecting BAD propaganda is certainly a habit I can support. My point is simply that, by rejecting propaganda, without qualifying, you’re rejecting the means by which nearly every politician in history has been elected.

    Of course, conscious recognition of propaganda, good or bad, may not mitigate its effects on decision-making (implicit associations, other unconscious reasoning).

    Regarding specific terminology like “Obamacare,” my neutrality rule of thumb is, Would Frank Luntz want a GOP candidate to say this or something else? In this case, he would definitely tell candidates to say Obamacare instead of the Affordable Care Act, HCR, or just about anything.

    There’s also Lakoff’s rule of thumb: if Republicans started the use of the term, it’s loaded; make your own.

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  40. [...] that in mind, James Joyner, Patrick Appel, Meghan McArdle are all wondering why Democrats make a fuss when the word comes up. [...]

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