I saw the word “Obamacare” for the first time on the White House website today. Since when did the White House refer to the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare?” That’s like making fun of yourself for no reason. But actually there might be more to “Obamacare” than just a White House webmaster’s typo.
Historically, “Obamacare” has been used by GOP’ers in their attack of the Affordable Care Act. Like a subtle form of aversion therapy, the term makes their audiences think of Obama every time they assail the healthcare law.
We see this done by Democrats as well. Just look at “Romneycare.” It was used to link Gov. Romney with Massachusetts’ healthcare system, a system that Romney had opposed for nationwide implementation during the 2012 presidential election.
In a break from the past, it seems the White House has started using “Obamacare” to refer to the Affordable Care Act. I saw this post on WH.gov: “What Obamacare Means For You” and the term was used in an official, serious capacity — not some wry joke in an Obama speech or a quote from a colloquial-sounding expert. A quick search for “Obamacare” on the WhiteHouse.gov website shows that the White House has only started using that term since August 2013, with previous mentions of the healthcare act retaining more neutral monikers.
In adopting “Obamacare,” the move seems to have served a few strategic communication goals: It (1) reappropriated the word from Republican control, thereby creating a positive association with the word and counteracting the negative framing that Republicans had been attaching to “Obamacare;” (2) attempted to capture a watch word among Americans who’d begun to think of Obamacare as a negative concept distinct from the Affordable Care Act (see Jimmy Kimmel’s revealing survey) and would soon begin Googling “Obamacare” to research and purchase insurance; and (3) highlighted Obama’s connection with his signature domestic achievement.
As a communication tactic, the reappropriation of “Obamacare” from negative to positive is a smart and simple way to reframe the debate and highlight Obama’s achievements amid flagging approval ratings. Remember what was happening when the Administration decided to start using “Obamacare” around mid-August? Certain Republicans members of the House (Rep. Mark Meadows) and Senate (Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio) were beginning to lobby members of Congress to defund the ACA. With media scrutiny increasing and the idea of defunding the ACA gaining traction, the Obama Administration adopted “Obamacare.”
Unfortunately for the Obama, the Administration has kind of shot itself in the foot with this tactic. The ACA’s rollout has been crippled by technical issues and miscommunication about policy cancellations, which is exacerbated by the media’s feeding frenzy on the issue. (11/23/13 update: Pew noted that the ACA’s troubles and Typhoon Haiyan formed the two largest stories during Nov. 11-15, with the former even beating out the latter on FOX and MSNBC.) Rather than fostering goodwill around the ACA, the emphasized connection between Obama and the ACA that resulted from “Obamacare” could not come at a worse time for our beleaguered president. If the ACA’s problems continue then Obama will be that much more strongly associated with those problems. As we pass the Administration’s self-imposed deadline of Nov. 30 to fix HealthCare.gov, we’ll have to see if “Obamacare” was such a good choice for the president. If the rest of the Obamacare’s rollout goes bad, Obama will surely take the heat for it because this has his name all over it.