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ObamaCare and the Limits of Propaganda

When future historians attempt to reach a consensus on the moment the Obama personality cult officially became undeniably creepy, they will have plenty of options. But it’s doubtful they will put that date any later than the September 2011 launch of Attack Watch, the Obama team’s web portal established to enable and encourage supporters to report on their fellow citizens to their dear leader’s staff in the White House.

Attack Watch very quickly became a laughingstock. But the Obama administration never faltered in its appreciation for the value of propaganda to its own political success. Whether it was contracting with WebMD or hiring an NFL football team to promote White House talking points, ObamaCare has been the focus of all manner of creative efforts to pay for the good press the disastrous and unpopular law could not earn on its own.

Yet for all the Obama cult’s branding skill and pop culture presence, propaganda has its limits. One indication that the White House is getting that message is today’s Politico story on the president’s reluctance to share a name with his destructive reform law:

“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.

Democrats can read the polls. The president’s approval ratings are tanking after the ObamaCare website fiasco and the continuing revelations that the president sold the bill on false promises and that millions are getting kicked off their insurance plans. Many may soon lose access to their doctors because of ObamaCare as well. With the midterms coming up next year, it’s clear Democrats would like to put some distance between themselves and the president’s health-care mess.

But it’s their mess too. ObamaCare was passed on a partisan vote. Liberals wanted it, conservatives didn’t. Liberals got their law, and now they’ll own it. The indecision over what to call it, however, will change if the popularity of the law changes. That’s what made the Democrats’ initial opposition to the term ObamaCare so revealing: they seemed to understand just how unpopular was the law they forced on the public even as they were casting their votes.

It calls to mind this heartwarming story referenced by Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum last week:

Last month a Tennessee judge overseeing a burglary case rejected a pretrial motion in which the prosecution requested that it not be referred to as “the Government” because that term is “derogatory.” In the May 22 motion, Assistant District Attorney General Tammy J. Rettig noted with alarm that “it has become commonplace during trials for attorneys for defendants, and especially Mr. [Drew] Justice [the defendant’s lawyer], to refer to State’s attorneys as ‘the Government’ repeatedly during trial.” Rettig worried that “such a reference is used in a derogatory way and is meant to make the State’s attorneys seem oppressive and to inflame the jury.” She added that “attempts to make the jury dislike the State’s attorney have no place in the courtroom.” She therefore urged Williamson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Binkley to bar Justice from using the g-word during the trial and instead refer to her as “General Rettig, the Assistant District Attorney General, Mrs. Rettig, or simply the State of Tennessee.”

The judge denied the motion, and Sullum quotes the opposing counsel’s sarcastic response, which is really worth a read. But the story was encouraging because when even those representing the government acknowledge that the term “government” carries a derogatory, “oppressive” connotation, there is still hope for the republic.

Something similar took place within the debate over what to call ObamaCare. In August 2012, the New York Times reported on the term suddenly being embraced by Democrats. Until that point, the Times noted, they didn’t even want other people to be allowed to use the term: “Democrats continued to complain when the news media used the term and tried to stop House Republicans from using it in their official correspondence with constituents because they said it violated rules against partisan letters.”

It’s doubtful that Democrats will take a page out of the Tennessee prosecutor’s book and openly admit their project is becoming synonymous with oppressive authority. But they can’t run from the reality of the reform law no matter what they choose to call it.



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