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Buzzwords: Rephrasing Obama's lexicon

Scratch 'cap and trade' and 'global warming,' Democratic pollsters tell Obama. They're ineffective. Republicans are also rethinking how to use words to their advantage.

May 11, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — In the debate over his top environmental goals, President Obama is backing away from "cap and trade."

Not the policy. It's the phrase itself, deemed confusing by Democratic pollsters, that has all but disappeared from the president's vocabulary of late.

Now when Obama talks about forcing companies to bid at auction for the right to emit greenhouse gases, he is more apt to mention "market-based" proposals and "clean energy jobs," hinting at a rich new employment source.

Control the language, politicians know, and you stand a better chance of controlling the debate. So the Obama administration, in its push to enact sweeping energy and healthcare policies, has begun refining the phrases it uses in an effort to shape public opinion.

Words that have been vetted in focus groups and polls are seeping into the White House lexicon, while others considered too scary or confounding are falling away.

Today, aides in Obama's Council on Environmental Quality will meet with a research and marketing group that is promoting an alternative to the phrase "global warming," which some pollsters say fails to capture the idea of greenhouse gases threatening the environment.

"There is value in trying to get the messaging right," said a senior White House environmental aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Because at the end of the day this is tricky policy. . . . We want to make sure we're talking in a way that people understand."

Republicans too are rethinking the words they use. The GOP's response to Obama's energy effort is "light-switch tax." Their message is that if Obama gets his way, Americans will be taxed every time they turn on a light.

As for Obama's healthcare overhaul, consultant Frank Luntz led a briefing for Republican aides on Capitol Hill last week to suggest phrases that might prove effective against it.

Luntz especially liked the term "rationing," with its connotation of long waits for medical tests and denial of care.

"The word 'rationing' does induce the negative response you want," Luntz's memo to GOP congressional staff said.

"As you can see," the memo continued, " 'rationing' tests very well against the other healthcare buzzwords that frighten Americans," such as "socialized medicine" and "Hillary-care" -- a reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed effort to revamp healthcare when she was first lady in the 1990s.

The San Francisco firm David Binder Research has conducted focus groups for the Democratic National Committee, which has shared the findings with White House officials such as senior advisor David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer, a deputy communications director. The Democratic committee's expense records show it has paid the firm $87,500 so far this year.

"The problem in the past for Democrats has been once they get elected they revel in talking to each other in policy-ese," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist. "But in doing so, they talk in a language that is incomprehensible to people who live and work outside the bubble."

Results of a recent poll by the Mellman Group were also shared with the White House. The Washington consulting firm undertook a survey for environmentalists that polled 800 likely voters in late March. Its 45-page report recommended playing up the idea that curbing global warming would create jobs.

The survey tested 19 phrases and found "clean energy jobs" had the widest appeal, with 42% of the respondents "very enthusiastic" about it.

"Cap and trade," by contrast, ranked next to last, with only 7% registering enthusiasm.

Few people know that the "cap" in the proposed cap-and-trade system refers to the limit that the government would impose on industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases. In order to exceed the caps, polluters would have to buy emission permits from the government and from other companies -- thus, the "trade."

"Cap and trade is a term used by policymakers and insiders, and it's not understood by average Americans," one Democratic strategist said.

Another strategist said the term "trade" reminded people of the volatile stock market, which made them uneasy about the underlying policy.

It seems clear that the White House is absorbing some of these messages. During Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, his website included a section devoted to energy and environmental protection. The phrase "cap and trade" popped up at several points.

In contrast, Obama's White House website carries an energy section that makes no mention of "cap and trade."

A list of energy policy talking points compiled by Obama's Council on Environmental Quality is filled with poll-tested messages, such as variations on the phrase "clean energy jobs."

Republicans' use of the "light-switch tax" is meant to make a simple point: Obama's energy plan costs money. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used the term on a television talk show in March. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) have invoked it too.

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