In a creative use of language, the government may be trying to, perhaps not so subtly, convince you of its well-meaning intentions. In a day and age where the term “federal government” evokes feelings of disillusionment, and for some, even disgust, the Obama administration is opting for the softer, and evidently preferable term “federal family.”
But does “federal family” elicit warm, familial feelings, or does it instead conjure images of Big Brother and 1984?
The Palm Beach Post notes that in the flurry of official communications surrounding the onset and aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) repeatedly used the phrase “federal family” when describing the Obama administration’s response to the storm.
The term wasn’t coined by the Obama administration, but it certainly seems to have taken it to a whole other level.
While the administrations of both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush peppered the odd congressional testimony or statement with the euphemism (a Google search reveals the phrase appeared 10 times on FEMA’s website during the Bush years), since Obama took office, “federal family” has turned up some 118 times on fema.gov, 50 instances of which include Irene-related references.
“Under the direction of President Obama and Secretary Janet Napolitano, the entire federal family is leaning forward to support our state, tribal and territorial partners along the East Coast,” a FEMA news release stated the Friday prior to Irene’s arrival.
“’Government’ is such a dirty word right now,” Florida State University communication professor Davis Houck told the Post. “Part of what the federal government does and any elected official does is change the terms of the language game into terms that are favorable to them.”
In another instance during Hurricane Irene, the Obama administration claimed it was “committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear.”
“That one is so blatantly obvious that I think people’s rhetorical radar is going to go off,” Houck said.
The Sydney Morning Herald adds that some believe a disaster is a golden opportunity to communicate how government can help people:
The University of Pennsylvania political communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, said: ”People are performing a family-like function in a … crisis.”
But the message only worked, she said, if it was reinforced by images of federal workers managing the aftermath – in other words, succeeding.
”The question is, ‘Are we a dysfunctional family?’ ” she said.