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With Hurricane Irene, White House takes a spin down Madison Ave.

FEMA and other officials have trumpeted the hurricane response by 'the federal family' rather than the 'government.' It's not the first administration to take that political tack.

August 31, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, talks with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, right, in Ludlow, Vt., as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott listens. The men conferred during a break in a helicopter tour of storm damage in the state.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, left, talks with FEMA Administrator Craig… (Toby Talbot, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — In a political season when mere mention of "federal government" can elicit catcalls and complaints,Hurricane Irene saw the emergence of a potential replacement worthy of the advertising execs on "Mad Men."

In a flurry of news releases distributed by the White House in recent days, the administration has trumpeted the hard work of "the federal family" responding to Hurricane Irene, eschewing the G-word altogether.

Photos:  Hurricane Irene cleanup begins

While the phrase isn't new — it was used in the last administration — it certainly feels current.

The federal government, or what many Republicans call "the problem," could be due for a makeover. This summer's bruising debt ceiling battle and subsequent credit downgrade was an insult-to-injury moment. The insults aren't likely to disappear as presidential candidates fight over the role of government and Congress locks horns over the country's financial future.

Politicians have long tried to master Madison Avenue's rebranding techniques, with some success. Don't like new "taxes"? Try "revenue enhancers." Don't mind the "estate tax"? Try the "death tax."

Depending on how you get along with your family, "federal family" is more likely to conjure up capable parents instead of bungling bureaucrats — a support system working as a team, instead of competing agencies angling for power.

Federal officials said use of the phrase is not part of an effort to rebrand the thing previously known as the "federal government." They note that the phrase has been used by top Democrats and Republicans in the past as internal shorthand for the network of federal bureaucracies, or for the community of federal employees.

Michael Brown, who served as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the George W. Bush administration, also used the phrase in reference to hurricane preparation in 2004.

"The term 'federal family' is a phrase that FEMA has used frequently in public materials for years, spanning multiple administrations and federal responses to disasters," said agency spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.

Still, the FEMA news releases on Hurricane Irene, distributed since Friday by the White House, certainly put the spotlight on the phrase.

Each detailed timelines of emergency operations under the subject line: "Overview of Federal Family's Preparation and Response."

Early last week, Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, and Jack Hayes, who heads the National Weather Service, announced that their agencies were working together to prepare for the hurricane season.

"That team includes the entire federal family, state, local and tribal governments, the faith-based and nonprofit communities, and the private sector," they wrote.

Some were skeptical of the phrase's staying power.

"They're trying to personalize the federal government. But that ain't the way to do it," said Frank Luntz, the GOP political consultant who coined the term "death tax." "Some smart Republican is going to come along and compare it to '1984' and Big Brother. It's '1984' all over again."

But others say a disaster is a chance to communicate how government can help people.

"People are performing a family-like function in a time of crisis," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. But the message only works, she said, if it is reinforced by images of federal workers managing the aftermath — in other words, succeeding.

"The question is, 'Are we a dysfunctional family?' " she asked.

Photos: Hurricane Irene cleanup begins

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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