By George Bennett
Don't think of it as the federal government but as your "federal family."
In a Category 4 torrent of official communications during the approach and aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has repeatedly used the phrase "federal family" when describing the Obama administration's response to the storm.
The Obama administration didn't invent the phrase but has taken it to new heights.
"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 declared Friday as Irene churned toward landfall.
The G-word — "government" — has been nearly banished, with FEMA instead referring to federal, state and local "partners" as well as "offices" and "personnel."
"'Government' is such a dirty word right now," says Florida State University communication professor Davis Houck. "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."
"Family" can evoke favorable thoughts of motherhood and security. But it can also conjure images of Big Brother and organized crime.
The phrase "federal family" has been used in connection with FEMA at least as far back as 1999.
Under President George W. Bush, FEMA officials sprinkled the alliterative euphemism into congressional testimony and statements. When former FEMA Director Michael Brown promised help to hurricane-battered Floridians in 2004, he vowed that "the federal family is dedicated to staying for as long as it takes."
During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore responded to 1999 flooding in Iowa by pledging that "the federal family is committed to providing the necessary resources to comfort every person and family devastated by this disaster and to help them return to their normal way of living as fast as possible."
A Google search shows the phrase appearing 10 times on FEMA's website during the Bush years. Since Obama took office, "federal family" has turned up 118 times on fema.gov, including 50 Irene-related references.
Among them: statements that the Obama administration "is committed to bringing all of the resources of the federal family to bear" for storm assistance and that "the entire federal family continues to lean forward to support the states in their ongoing response efforts."
Houck doubts all the "family" references will give the public a warm and fuzzy view of FEMA and the federal government.
"That one is so blatantly obvious that I think people's rhetorical radar is going to go off," Houck says.
On the other hand, Houck says, "If FEMA can come in and really do a great job, maybe that 'federal family' thing would stick with the people on the ground."
FEMA did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.