Commentary: Why Jesse Jackson Is Wrong About "Obamacare"

The civil rights activist says the term is derogatory. But despite what it's called, it is time to make health care work for everyone.

Posted: 10/11/2013 01:15 PM EDT

Rev. Jesse Jackson made an unusual announcement this week. On Tuesday, he posted the following message on Twitter: "Stop calling the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, it is a put down to distract us from the true Health Care issues it solves."

The post was a bit surprising, considering commentators on all sides of the political spectrum have begun using the term synonymously with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

But that wasn't the end of the story. On Thursday, Jackson was at it again, this time tweeting a new but similar message: "We must stop using the term 'ObamaCare'. This term is designed to distort. It must be referred to properly as the Affordable Care Act."

Later he added yet another post: "Calling the Affordable Care Act 'ObamaCare' is like an omelet with no eggs."

Finally, Friday morning, he did it again. "There is no law called 'Obamacare'," he wrote. "It's like an omelette with no eggs."

Okay, I don't quite get the omelette metaphor, but he's certainly got a point about the use of the term "Obamacare." The word "Obamacare" seems to have begun derisively as a way for conservatives to associate health care reform with a president who they considered to be unpopular. Opponents were so successful at branding the law with the term that eventually the media, and later the White House, started using it as well. It seemed a brilliant, albeit cynical, political move.

Remember, Republicans are geniuses at naming controversial things. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's team came up with the seemingly oxymoronic term "peacekeeper missile" to justify new defense spending. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush developed the "Healthy Forests Initiative," which expanded the rights of logging companies to chop down trees, and the "Clear Skies Act," which expanded the rights of polluters.

Names have power in politics. The whole debate about abortion, for example, often turns on how opposing sides have defined themselves as "pro-life" or "pro-choice." In the case of health care reform, the use of the term "Obamacare" has clearly affected its popularity. Just recently, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel sent a TV crew into the streets to interview people about the new law and found most were far more willing to support the Affordable Care Act than Obamacare. They didn't realize they were the same thing.

Of course, part of the reason why Obamacare is not more popular is because of a concerted public misinformation campaign by critics. If you ask people about the specific elements of the law, however, they actually like it. They like that insurance companies can no longer deny coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. And they like allowing children to stay on their parents' plans until they turn 26. But they're still not sold on the name. Nevertheless, that's not a reason to give up on rebranding it.

George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant, reminds us how difficult it is to get people not to think of something after you've already mentioned it to them. I suspect that's true with Obamacare too. But this also presents an opportunity.

Using the term Obamacare may seem like a loser now, especially as the media have focused on glitches on the healthcare.gov web site the past week, but history could provide some guidance. Considering the opposition to Medicare and Social Security when they were first introduced, it's likely that Obamacare will grow in popularity once it becomes fully implemented and millions of Americans finally get health care coverage.

Once this happens, President Obama's name and administration will be permanently branded with health care reform. Perhaps that's the reason why the White House itself now uses the term. It takes time to change an impression, but it's working.

If this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is any indication, this strategy could soon pay off. Much to the surprise of Tea Party Republicans, Obamacare has actually become slightly more popular since the enrollment period began on October 1. Americans aren't focused on the glitches. They've seen glitches in the rollout of new products many times before. But they're really unhappy that Republicans have shut down the government just to try to defund Obamacare.

As a result, the latest poll numbers are stunning. The Republican Party now gets its worst rating in the 25-year history of the Wall Street Journal poll. NBC's Chuck Todd calls the numbers "historic" and describes the situation as "an unmitigated political disaster for the GOP." Clearly, Republicans miscalculated.

Rev. Jackson's certainly got a point about the derogatory use of the term Obamacare. But now is not the time to stop using it. Now is the time to make it work.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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