It seems only last year that “Obamacare” was termed a pejorative word, one to be avoided by all serious people. Back then, so horrified by the moniker was perennial conservative favorite, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, that she took to the House floor to denounce those with the temerity to use it in debate: “Is it a violation of the House rule wherein members are not permitted to make disparaging references to the President of the United States?” Wasserman Schultz asked the chairman, brimming with indignation. She continued:
In two previous gentlemen’s statements on the amendment, both of them referred to the Affordable Care Act, which is the accurate title of the health care reform law, as ‘Obamacare.’ That is a disparaging reference to the President of the United States, it is meant as a disparaging reference to the President of the United States. . . . It is clearly in violation of House rules against that.
How times change: The president is now using the term freely in his reelection campaign. “Happy birthday, Obamacare,” wrote Jim Messina in an e-mail to supporters. “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare,” agreed David Axelrod in a separate missive. White House adviser David Plouffe took to CNN to argue that ”by the end of this decade, if this law is fully implemented, we’re going to be very glad they called it Obamacare, because the reality of what is happening here is so different than what the opponents claim.” On Twitter, Obama’s hapless social media team attempted to promote a hashtag – #IlikeObamacare – on the anniversary of the law’s passage. And Julia, the fictional American woman whose life is made better by Obama’s government programs, takes advantage of the program thus:
For the past four years, Julia has worked full-time as a web designer. Thanks to Obamacare, her health insurance is required to cover birth control and preventive care, letting Julia focus on her work rather than worry about her health.
The Obama campaign even sells t-shirts that read “I like Obamacare” for $35 on its website.
Presumably if the president is using the term himself, then Wasserman Schultz would no longer consider it “disparaging.” But this raises another question, and an important one: Who gets to decide which terms are reasonable in the House — and in the public debate at large? The House of Representatives is an equal body to the executive branch — it is not subordinate to it. And the people are the employers of the government. In our republic of separated powers, we have to be extremely careful to maintain a healthy balance of power between branches, and to remind the state that it is our servant. Try as one might, it is rather difficult to view Wasserman’s Schultz’s position as being anything other than that words against the president are in poor taste until the president says otherwise. (An odd position to take in and of itself in this case, given that the law in question is supposed to be so wonderful.) But suppose that citizen critics of a president considered him to be a “tyrant,” and many in the House agreed. Would they have to wait for presidential acquiescence before bringing up the subject? One presumes not. Why so, then, with “Obamacare”?
The meaning of the word has clearly changed, as meanings are wont to do. This is true of many words in politics: “Whig,” “Tory,” “Suffragette,” “Yankee,” and “Quaker” are all terms that were originally hurled in anger but were then reclaimed by their targets. Now that it is used frequently enough that the White House has adopted it as its own, “Obamacare” looks to be set for the same fate. Next time critics coin a word that is “disparaging” of the government, they might insist a little more loudly that not only are terms whose offense is conditional upon their political expedience not really offensive at all, but that the president of the United States does not get to decide where the lines of polite conversation are drawn.