For five years now, “Obamacare” has been a dirty word in American politics: a term used by conservatives to dismiss President Obama’s agenda for health care reform. The bumper-sticker-friendly sentiment “Repeal Obamacare” has become a favorite mantra of Republicans on the stump.
In recent weeks, however, as the Supreme Court geared up to consider dismantling the health care legislation passed by Congress in 2010, the term “Obamacare” began popping up somewhere new: among the Obama team members themselves. What Obama’s advisers are attempting is an act of linguistic appropriation. They are trying to reclaim “Obamacare” as a positive term.
It’s a daring campaign strategy. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or PPACA, as the legislation is officially known, is performing poorly in opinion polls. Its judicial future is uncertain. But the effort to make a rhetorical silk purse out of a sow’s ear is a familiar one in political history--and sometimes, the gambit has even worked.
“Obamacare” was formed simply by grafting the “-care” ending of “Medicare” to “Obama.” But it was never a neutral label. When Republicans, including Mitt Romney, first began to use it in 2007 to describe then-candidate Obama’s plans to reform health care, its use was clearly meant to evoke the scornful name for the legislation promoted by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1993. “The path of Europe is not the way to go,” Romney said on the Iowa campaign trail in 2007. “Socialized medicine. Hillarycare. Obamacare.”
By saddling byzantine sets of health care reforms with an opponent’s name, politicians suggest that their rivals are pushing through federal policies single-handedly--in keeping with popular fears of an imperious federal government taking away individual medical choices. Romney, of course, is now under fire from fellow Republicans for his role as governor of Massachusetts in pushing through “Romneycare,” seen as a model for the individual mandate at the center of the Obama-backed plan. (Before his primary campaign fizzled, Tim Pawlenty ham-handedly tried to blend the two epithets together into “Obamneycare.”)
“Obamacare” served as a dog whistle for the burgeoning Tea Party movement in the summer of 2009. When Congress finally passed the health care reform bill the following year, the shorthand of “Obamacare” stuck, even among nonpartisan news outlets. Surely it was a handier designation than PPACA (does it rhyme with “alpaca”?)--or even the shorter name for the law, the Affordable Care Act, the less-than-memorable moniker favored until recently by the president and his team.
Last summer, Obama seemed to recognize that disabusing people of the “Obamacare” name was a losing battle. In an August town hall meeting, he made a joke out of it: “I have no problem with people saying ‘Obama cares.’ I do care.” A few weeks ago, on the second anniversary of the legislation’s passage, the president’s playful crack became a serious political move. Campaign strategist David Axelrod sent supporters an e-mail with the subject line “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare,” and Obama’s own Twitter feed encouraged people to use the hashtag #ilikeobamacare. Outside the Supreme Court’s health care hearings, protesters were soon carrying signs saying “We love Obamacare.”
Will the turnaround on “Obamacare” pay off this campaign season? We could look at previous reclamation projects for some clues. The idea of turning a hurtful word into a positive or neutral term might be most familiar to us from the realm of identity politics--for instance, how “queer” has been reclaimed by the gay community. But there’s a long legacy of this verbal repositioning in party politics, too.
Take “Whig” and “Tory,” words that started off inauspiciously but came to be the familiar designations for Great Britain’s Liberal and Conservative factions. “Whig” was originally applied to Scottish Presbyterian insurgents and meant “country bumpkin” (from the word “whiggamore”). “Tory,” similarly, came from an Irish word for “outlaw.” The two words became political epithets in the 1680s during the debate over whether James, Duke of York, a Catholic, should be allowed to succeed his brother Charles II to the throne. But the terms lost their power to offend when they were embraced by those they labeled.
Whether the positive spin works for “Obamacare” will greatly depend on how the legislation ultimately fares. Events on the ground have dictated the fate of other personalized political words, such as those in the “-nomics” family. “Nixonomics” was originally suggested within the Nixon White House in the summer of 1969, in a memo circulated by a young speechwriter named William Safire. But by that fall, “Nixonomics” was already being used disparagingly in the press. Thus, when “Reaganomics” came into use during Ronald Reagan’s first term, it carried the bad old whiff of “Nixonomics” and was a popular putdown among Democrats. When the economy recovered, however, the term lost its bite, and Reagan proudly ran on “Reaganomics” in his 1984 reelection campaign.
Still, sometimes such words are simply beyond reclamation. At the beginning of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover was plagued by numerous eponyms: Temporary shantytowns were called “Hoovervilles,” newspapers were called “Hoover blankets,” and an empty pocket turned inside out was a “Hoover flag.” Even after the country recovered, these Hooverisms kept their sting. President Obama and his team are hoping that the future of “Obamacare” is brighter, but even the cleverest repackaging can run aground on harsh political realities.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.