Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Name Game

Oddly enough, the discussion of what to call the health care law has produced some quite good blogging.  James Joyner argues that "Obamacare" is politically neutral, and argues against "propagandistic bill naming," citing "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" as a prime example of that style.  I think that's generally a good point (and I forget: does the bill give the exchanges a fancy propogandistic name, or are they just "health care exchanges")? 

On the other hand, Aaron Carroll makes the excellent point that Barack Obama didn't do this by himself:
The more specific reason I don’t use “Obamacare” is that it implies that the law is the work of one man.  It wasn’t passed by fiat.  It was created by three committees in the House, two more in the Senate, was voted on by a majority of Representatives and a heck of a lot of Senators before being altered in reconciliation.  Then it was signed by the President.  President Obama neither gets all the blame nor all the credit.  It’s not his and his alone.  
Ezra Klein has more, and singles out Max Baucus.  Again, fair enough, but radically incomplete; if we're going to name this one for people, it's gonna have to be (in no particular order, and non-inclusive) KennedyObamaWaxmanDoddBaucusPelosiReidHarkinMillerRahmSchileroDeParlethousandsofactivistsdozensofinterestgroupsCare.  Barring that, I've adopted ACA, because whatever the origin of the letters, calling it by the supremely bland "ACA" sounds about as neutral as one can get. 


  1. You can't have this discussion without recognizing that the right wing uses the widely term as a pejorative, and web searches support that is the primary understanding of its use. Here's Steve Benen: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_12/027191.php.

    Sully has a good rundown: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/12/why-not-call-the-aca-obamacare.html

  2. I think if Democrats can hold their noses and call that disasterpiece of legislation the "PATRIOT" act, republicans can call it the affordable care act.

  3. I wonder what kind of name Joyner would approve of. "The Health Care Reform Act"? "The Health Insurance Subsidy and Regulation Act"? "The Communazislamofascist Abomination of 2010"?

    It seems like, if a law's name is going to be descriptive at all (rather than "H.B. 1470" or some such) then it is going to have some connotations to someone.

  4. Anon -- good point.

    Andrew -- yeah. On a propaganda scale, I'd put Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at, what, a 4? And then PPACA or ACA is down to about a 2, which is probably lower then Health Care Reform Act. Certainly lower than DREAM Act, or PATRIOT Act. OTOH, as a pejorative, Obamacare isn't very high on the scale, either -- it may seem that way to those who think Obama is a socialist Kenyan, but that doesn't make it actually so.

  5. I definitely agree that "Obamacare" is mostly pejorative, for the reasons stated. It has its origins in "Clintoncare" and "Hillarycare" from the 1990s, which were coined by Republican opponents to the bills in an attempt to disparage them. The earliest instant of the term "Romneycare" on Google News archive is from a right-wing website attacking it in 2006:


    "Obamacare" has its own problems given Obama's apparent lack of involvement in the process of developing the bill, but the real problem is this whole -care business in the first place. It has always been a right-wing practice aimed at disparaging health-care initiatives perceived as increasing the role of government in our lives. Like the phrase "Democrat Party," nobody's sure why it's demeaning. We can come up with explanations if we're so inclined, but the bottom line is that it's simply tainted by being used in this manner.

    The thing is, pejorative expressions have a way of turning into official ones, if they're catchy enough. The term "Big Bang theory" was coined by the theory's leading detractor, the astronomer Fred Hoyle. I can't think of an example of this in politics, but there probably are some. And I see this happening with "Obamacare." Whatever its problems, it's just plain catchier than any of its alternatives, and it's probably too late by now to come up with something new.

    But if it sticks, it would be unprecedented. Will we still be talking about Obamacare several decades from now? If so, it would probably be the first major program named after the president who passed it. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing in the long run, and I don't know that Obama himself would mind.

  6. I agree with ACA as the most neutral thing to call it. But can we get some well-deserved mocking of acronym first naming? PATRIOT Act, DREAM Act, etc.

  7. >But can we get some well-deserved mocking of acronym first naming? PATRIOT Act, DREAM Act, etc.

    But keep the differences in mind between a meaningless acronym like ACA, and an acronym designed to promote the bill in question, like PATRIOT or DREAM. It goes a long way to explaining why "Obamacare" has overtaken "ACA" in common usage, whereas "PATRIOT" and "DREAM" have become the standard terms regardless of what people think of the bills.

  8. "That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing in the long run, and I don't know that Obama himself would mind."

    I've been thinking about this, and I think that that's right. I notice that Michelle Bachman has been using the word "Obamacare" in practically every sentence recently.

    This is a game they play. And it would most likely go away if liberal blogs started to routinely refer to "Obamacare" in all of their various and sundry wonkish healthcare posts.


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