Diminishing by Nickname: “Obamacare”

Megan McArdle does her level best to defend the right’s favorite legislative sobriquet.

I will stop referring to it as ObamaCare when we stop calling them the Bush tax cuts for the rich.  It is an effective shorthand for a law that is otherwise unwieldy to describe.  If legislators wanted me to call it something else, they should have given it a catchy name like “Medicare”, not a hypertrophied piece of propaganda like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  I don’t know why the left considers the term particularly perjorative; it is a health care program, and it is Barack Obama’s signature legislation.

Personally, I have no such lofty agenda; I just don’t have a better term for it.  But surely progressives think it is going to succeed.  Shouldn’t they be thrilled that the rest of us are associating Obama’s name with it at every turn?

Representative usage. Classy.

Pundits and Andrew Sullivan’s readers conclusively answered the question a while back: “ObamaCare” is pejorative, because it is only used pejoratively. Why are any slurs — ethnic, sexual, etc. — offensive? Very few have an offensive root meaning. They acquire their potency only through consistent usage to marginalize and insult. Meaning depends upon context.  McArdle suggests we “reclaim” the word: but that can’t happen until the pejorative use ceases to be the majority use. Using the phrase “ObamaCare” invokes all manner of classless, offensive, and even racist images, like the one at right, and cannot be divorced from that history. It’s that simple. We needn’t come up with a fancy rhetorical justification here: we can simply acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Let’s try anyways. “ObamaCare” offends in a way “Bush tax cut” does not because “ObamaCare” deletes a descriptive name for a policy and replaces it with the President’s, thereby transforming the policy’s name into a way of making some value judgment about the President (McArdle seems to agree on this point). Whichever way you use it, positively or (more likely) negatively, the phrase diminishes the office of the President, and suggests the President’s direct involvement not with the bill, but with care decisions, which plays nicely into the misleading and inaccurate right-wing narrative about “death panels,” and what have you. The possessive (“the Bush tax cuts,” or “the Obama health care act”) does not offend because it is strictly, and by connotation, accurate. The comparison would be to something like “BushFare” — a way of implying that the tax cuts were Bush’s form of welfare for his rich buddies — not “the Bush tax cuts.” Which would be equally tacky.

Simpler still, using pejorative, cutesy phrases is not how statesmen conduct themselves when discussing matters of national importance. “ObamaCare” is part and parcel of a political dialogue that diminishes, insults, and oversimplifies, all to make sure that when we talk politics, we do it at an an emotional rather than an intellectual level. I expect better from the party of Lincoln, in a government built by men like Adams, Jefferson, and Washington.



  1. I’m going to be blunt here. If “Obamacare” is considered pejorative, it’s because the discourse has been surrendered to the opposition. The best way to deal with that is to claim the epithet as your own and make it signify something positive. Turn it into an advantage and deny its use to the opponents. In other words, stop complaining and do something about it.

  2. So take the reclamation route? As in, “Obamacare has prevented insurance companies from denying care to sick kids”?

  3. Exactly. “Obamacare has secured insurance for old Mrs Parker and her pre-existing conditions.” “Obamacare will save $X billion dollars over the next 10 years.” And so on. If the label’s there, and people associate it with the reforms, you might as well try to own it.

    Besides, a label like that is an excellent way to establish a President’s legacy. If someone had though to call Medicare “Johnsoncare” instead, we might even remember there was a President Johnson once!

  4. We who remember when “Texas politiican” meant “statesman,” rather than “secessionist lunatic,” remember Mr. Johnson fondly ;).

  5. “Using the phrase “ObamaCare” invokes all manner of classless, offensive, and even racist images..”

    This is beyond silly. It reminds me of the claims during the ’08 election that calling someone a community organizer or a radical was racism. The ‘Bush tax cuts’ were officially known as the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. I’m not aware of any complaints from the Right when these were given a catchy nickname. But we’re also a hell of a lot more confident than your average American liberal. Must be all those big guns and trucks we own…

    Once again I have to wonder if this is another example of liberal self-loathing. Maybe you’re worried that Obamacare will continue to be unpopular and you don’t want him saddled with it in 2012?

    I also have to say that for someone who still passive-aggressively refuses to use capital letters when refering to he Tea Party movement (despite the fact that the rest of the media does) this complaint about Obamacare seems remarkably hypocritical.

  6. Haha I’m sure you think it’s silly!

    Taking “tea parties” first, there’s no umbrella organization. They all hate each other and fight like children. If you want to refer to them all, you can either reference each capitalized organization in kind, refer to the ideology (like I do), or confer on them some degree of uniformity and cohesion that they do not possess (like the media).

    You don’t see the distinction between “Obamacare” and “the Bush tax cuts”? Let’s resolve it this way: I have no problem with calling the Affordable Care Act the “Obama health care bill.” It’s all about the usage.

    1. The Progressive Movement was not a cohesive movement either but yet it gets capitalized. We could name dozens of other examples.

      What decade are living in Ames? This is the age of Brangelina and texting. It’s shorthand and you’re being incredibly over-sensitive. I will also go so far as to say that you’ll never redefine it. People still use the term ‘HillaryCare’ for the effort in the Clinton years. Lanfranc is right, your side needs to grow some balls and stop letting the other side control the discussion.

  7. Those premises can co-exist. HillaryCare and Brangelina are both diminutive too. The important note here is that the intent is to offend — like with the “Democrat” party thing a few years back. Do you deny that?

    And I think progressivism would properly be lowercase too. It’s Glenn Beck that’s revived that as a cap-P movement to bolster his conspiracy allegations.

    1. Your ‘intent to offend’ is equally apparent with the TP stuff and it’s amazing that you try to claim it isn’t. The Progressive Movement was capitalized as far back as Teddy Roosevelt. It’s not a new phenomenon.

      McArdle also posted a follow-up today which I think really explains why certain liberals are whining about this.

      “We do need a common narrative that includes a name,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “When Obama’s job performance improves, it will be fine to call it Obamacare. Now, it is polarizing.”

      You all simply don’t like the term because the bill is unpopular. If it was you would love the term Obamacare – of that I have no doubt. Or maybe the Left is just incredibly thin-skinned (ex. Boxer insisting on being called Senator).

      1. Why, again, is a bill that features about 1/2 to 2/3’rds of the health-care reform ideas from the Republican side of the aisle so unpopular? And Mrs. Boxer is a Senator, and so protocol requires either using that title or The Honorable Mrs. And that has nothing to do with this bill’s naming . . . .

        1. Why it was unpopular is a whole other discussion – but given it a catchy nickname is certainly not tragic. As I said, if it was popular Ames would love the label.

          And the Boxer reference is meant to highlight the fact that liberals seem to be remarkably thin-skinned about certain labels. Democrat vs Democratic party is another one. It’s just kind of laughable how upset they get and Ames is especially goofy when he’s so passive aggressive on the TP thing.

    2. …the intent is to offend…

      “Senator, you legislate like a dairy farmer.”
      “How appropriate, Senator. You legislate like a cow.”

      Well, carry on.

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