Taking 'Obama' out of health care
By: Reid J. Epstein
November 19, 2013 05:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama and loyal Democrats once embraced the term Obamacare to sell the American people on health care reform.
With the president’s approval ratings at record lows, a broken website and Obama under fire for his pledge that people could keep their plans, the “Affordable Care Act” has returned.
The president didn’t say “Obamacare” once during his nearly hourlong news conference last week, while he referred to the “Affordable Care Act” a dozen times. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went so far as to correct David Gregory on “Meet the Press” Sunday on the proper terminology. And White House talking points distributed to Democrats and obtained by POLITICO repeatedly refer to the Affordable Care Act in suggested sound bites, not Obamacare.
Calling it the Affordable Care Act has advantages for Democrats seeking to defend health care reform while still criticizing the bungled White House rollout. The phrase polls better than Obamacare — and people have responded more positively to the law’s benefits when they haven’t been told they come from Obamacare.
“You want the law to have approval rating higher than POTUS has,” a Democratic official said Monday.
“Obamacare” started out as a pejorative term during Obama’s first campaign, and Republicans, especially the tea party, embraced it during protests and rallies against the health care bill. The media generally steered clear as well — using phrases such as “health care reform” to describe the issue.
But Obama last year reappropriated the term for himself, making the phrase a staple of his stump speech and hawking “I (heart) Obamacare” bumper stickers.
“We passed Obamacare — yes, I like the term — we passed it because I do care, and I want to put these choices in your hands where they belong,” Obama said at a typical stop in Iowa last October.
Now, the phrase is vanishing from official use. White House website posts in July (“Obamacare in Three Words: Saving People Money”) and late September (“What Obamacare Means for You”) called the health care law the O-word. But now HealthCare.gov is almost entirely scrubbed of “Obamacare” and the law is called the Affordable Care Act in nearly every instance. Health insurance exchanges run by states don’t use the term Obamacare at all.
A 22-page White House document issued to Democratic Sunday show guests uses the word Obamacare only under a “general points” subheading and in a section debunking a purported myth that increased Medicaid enrollment would lead to an older, sicker population signing up for health care through the exchanges.
Instead, the document contains standard White House health care talking points: “The Affordable Care Act is more than a website”; “We have a great product that people like and tons of interest in the product”; and Obama’s “administrative proposal will give consumers more information and choices, including keeping their old plans.”
The White House talking points suggest that Democrats respond to GOP attacks by pointing to October, when the government was shut down and Congress was staring at a potential default.
“The GOP has an obsession with the Affordable Care Act,” the White House talking points read. “They were willing to shut down the government and threaten our economy and full faith and credit just to try to stop it. That didn’t work.”
The phrase also allows the White House and Democrats to present health care reform as an issue of settled law, rather than something that should be easily blocked.
White House aides said there’s been no internal guidance about which term to use.
Carney said there’s nothing to be read into his word choice. “I use both,” he said via email.
Carney avoided saying Obamacare during his regular press briefing Monday, instead using the phrases “health insurance reform” and “Affordable Care Act.”
In addition to reading portions of the Sunday show talking points nearly verbatim, Carney said Obama’s fighting to maintain the health care law because the president’s reelection campaign was about those issues, not necessarily about Obama himself.
“The president understands that there are a lot of people out there who believe deeply in the need to make sure that this is implemented properly,” Carney said. “Because millions of Americans fought hard for and believe in the benefits that the Affordable Care Act provides.”
On this week’s Sunday shows, Pelosi, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) defended the law while decoupling it from Obama’s name.
“The Affordable Care Act, as I call it, as I always called it, is right up there with Social Security, Medicare: affordable care for all Americans as a right, not a privilege,” Pelosi said after Gregory asked repeated questions using the term Obamacare.
Clyburn and Gillibrand offered the standard defense of the law while criticizing the White House’s handling of the rollout. Each referred to it only as the Affordable Care Act.
“The fact of the matter is, this is a rollout problem,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “This is not a values problem. And I think that if we were to look at what we were attempted to do with the Affordable Health Care Act, you will know that what we’re trying to do is change a value system in our country.”
And Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) has begun a one-man rebranding effort to refer to the ACA as the “health security law.”
Obamacare’s etymology traces back to 2007, when it was used largely in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal during the Democratic presidential primary season.
Mitt Romney — the author of the Massachusetts universal health care law on which the White House based the Affordable Care Act — was criticizing Obama’s health plan as Obamacare as far back as May 2007, when both men were candidates in their respective party primaries.
Obama’s staunchest defenders continue to use the term Obamacare. The Democratic National Committee promotes the health care law’s successes with a #thisisobamacare hashtag. Organizing for Action, the president’s political arm, continues to make liberal use of the term Obamacare.
“Any Democrat who thinks that they can run away from this bill by playing word games is sadly mistaken,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “Flaws and all, it’s a great bill and it should be defended and, besides, we now own it.”
First lady Michelle Obama mixed the two phrases during a fundraiser for Senate Democrats on Monday.
“The Affordable Care Act? That’s right, Obamacare was passed by Congress in 2010, signed by my husband and upheld by the Supreme Court,” she said.
Obama didn’t use the term Obamacare during a 14-minute call with OFA supporters Monday night, but as he finished OFA Executive Director Jon Carson introduced Erin Hannigan, the OFA staffer Carson said is “leading OFA’s Obamacare campaign.”
But after the troubled HealthCare.gov rollout and Obama’s attempt to fix his “if you like your plan, you can keep it” pledge, even the president has acknowledged the term is a loaded one. The president reiterated his prediction that Republicans will regret affixing his name to the health care law.
“I know health care is controversial, so there’s only going to be so much support we get on that on a bipartisan basis until it’s working really well, and then they’re going to stop calling it Obamacare,” Obama said Nov. 8 in New Orleans. “They’re going to call it something else.”