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Charlene Obernauer Headshot

'Obamacare' vs. 'Affordable Care Act': Why Words Matter

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Both Republicans and Democrats understand the power of language. Most recently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) shared their concerns on a hot mic over whose message (willing to compromise or not) polls better -- Democrats or Republicans. The struggle over choosing words that work, or communicating the best message for your audience, is critical to winning any campaign. As conservative messaging guru Dr. Frank Luntz wrote, "words that work breed campaigns that win."

However, the debate over the Affordable Care Act, which has ultimately led to a partisan-politics government shutdown, has Democrats inconsistently using the terms "Obamacare" and the "Affordable Care Act" to describe their health care bill. But the Democrats' message wasn't always so muddled. In early 2011, House Democrats argued that the GOP should be forbidden to call the bill "Obamacare" on the floor. As Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) said, "We have rules on the House floor that prohibit members from making disparaging remarks about the President of the United States and the Republicans mean ObamaCare as a disparaging term."

Indeed, she was right. The term "Obamacare" was a brilliant creation of Republican strategists -- Frank Luntz among them -- who correctly understood that "people want health care personalized, not politicized, and the phrase Obamacare is an effective way to do that."

But eventually, the Democrats seemed to give in. In summer of 2011, Obama famously said, "I have no problem with folks saying Obamacares. I do care." As the 2012 reelection campaign took off, Democrats used the term right alongside Republicans. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer admitted that the decision to turn the table on "Obamacare" happened organically when Obama himself started using the word.

However, the decision wasn't a complete messaging disaster. A recent CBS poll showed that 46 percent oppose "Obamacare" and 29 percent support it, whereas 37 percent oppose the "Affordable Care Act" with just 22 percent supporting it. Basically, people either really love or really hate "Obamacare" when it's labeled as such.

And the people who really hate it? Those are the right-wing extremists and their Tea Party elected officials who are behind the government shutdown. The decision to change the Democrat's messaging was organic (and happened after the bill passed). But given the never-ended battle against health care reform, Democrats need to be careful about how they talk about the Affordable Care Act, and the shutdown in general. Perhaps the Republicans, heatedly talking about whose messaging "polls better," have the right idea.

On October 1st, 2013, President Obama's Twitter feed and advocacy groups like Moveon.org proudly posted "Obamacare is here"! However, so too was the shutdown of the federal government. Language is important, and continuing to let Republican strategists run the show is not only dangerous, it's destructive. Progressives, from elected officials to advocacy groups to individuals, need to be more disciplined about how we talk about health care reform. Now is not the time to be lackadaisical about language -- we have too to lose.