Belmont Club

'Obama Phones,' 'Obama Meals,' and Other Objects

One of the recent minor news storms has been over school lunches:

Students and teachers from a high school in Kansas have created a YouTube video parody protesting the recent lunch restrictions placed on high school menus, USA Today reported. The video — titled “We Are Hungry” — comes just a week after students from a Wisconsin high school boycotted their school lunch over the changes.

The parody is in response to the new federal guidelines funded by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, dictating what is served in school cafeterias during lunch hour. The legislation was promoted by Michelle Obama, and is designed to improve nutrition standards for food served in schools. Some of the changes include age-aligned calorie restrictions of up to 850 calories, serving more whole grains and less sugar, and only allowing low- or non-fat milk.

It may not be long before the unsatisfying and politically correct school lunches are known as Obama Meals. After all, people have a habit of coining phrases to catch the sense of a thing. The phrase “Obama (something)” has been applied to a number of items, such as Obamacare; it may also apply to phones.

The other day a video made the rounds purporting to show a woman saying she would vote for Obama because he would give her a free phone. Here was another of the eponymous articles: the Obama Phone. But first of all, is there really an Obama Phone?

The answer is apparently a qualified “yes” — or “no” if you prefer, but not really. It’s not what people think it is:

There’s a government phone assistance program for low income people. It consists of two parts: “Link-Up,” which helps income-eligible people set up new home phone service, and “Lifeline,” which helps income-eligible people pay their monthly phone charges.

The name “Obama Phone” supposedly comes from an email that has been doing the rounds from 2009. In the email, an unknown but perhaps conservative author complains that Obama is giving away phones paid for by taxpayer money. But the actual program –according to Politifact — is nothing of the kind; it is from a phone assistance program started under Clinton.

The e-mail is correct in saying that tax dollars are being used to support the phone program. Still, it mischaracterizes the program by making it seem as if it were created by the Obama administration. These are not “Obama Phones.” (Clinton Phones?) So we rate the claim Barely True.

However, what liberals are certain of is that featuring the video of a low-income woman pleased about a phone is a racist trope.

According to Elspeth Reeve of The Atlantic, it is calculated to show that Obama’s supporters are worthless grifters:

Let’s start by saying it’s racial. The Obama Phone video belongs to a genre popular on conservative blogs in which poor people, usually black, confirm conservatives’ worst 47-percent fears by saying they can get something for nothing because Obama’s in office. The message is, “Here’s what Obama’s supporters really look like.”

The standout in the category is “Obama money”: Back in October 2009, big lines formed formed for Detroit housing assistance applications after the city underestimated how many people would show up to apply. The scene was chaotic, and local TV reported there were rumors that $3,000 checks would be handed out.

The meme on rightwing blogs became that it was an angry mob in search of “Obama money.” A Detroit radio station interviewed people in line for “Obama money.” One woman says, “I don’t know where he got it from but he’s giving it to us. … O-BA-MA O-BA-MA!” Rush Limbaugh excerpted the audio, saying, “This is the model citizen in Barack Obama’s vision.”

The problem with ascribing this trope to the video is that as early as June 2010 the phrase had apparently gained so much currency that a government-approved provider gave out the following clarificatory press release. Long before the video, people were looking for “Obama Phones”:

June 24, 2010 — The World Wide Web is full of rumors and wrong information about the term “Obama Phones.” First off and to clear things up once and for all — there is no such thing as an “Obama Phone.” The only thing similar between the term “Obama Phone ” and the current American president is the first name, and the origin of this misconception is still unknown.

What is true is the fact that the Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America programs have been around since 1984 when the “Universal Service Fund” was created under the Reagan administration. Also the Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America programs (part of the “Universal Service Fund”) has nothing to do with the “Stimulus Program” of 2009.

Another misconception is that the Universal Service Fund program is a tax paid by U.S. taxpayers. It is not. The Universal Service Fund program is funded from contributions by telecommunications carriers collected in part from the Universal Service Charge applicable to all forms of interstate telecommunication services. The concept of “Universal Service” as it applies to telecommunication services was actually started way back in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt way before World War II.

The information about the program is somewhat different; it is still not President Obama’s invention. But in these descriptions it is a non-taxpayer funded program started by Roosevelt and continued by Reagan! But it was never associated decisively with these past presidents. How did it come to be linked to Obama? Why had it become an eponym, like Xerox or Scotch Tape or Frigidaire?

If you wanted a free government phone, what would you look under? Your best bet is to search an “Obama Phone.” A website actually calling itself “Obama Phone” offers it; explaining that while, yes, it really isn’t an “Obama Phone,” you’ve come to the right place:

The term “the Obama Phone” has been all around since the day Barack Obama became the president of the United States of America. Many people think that Obama is giving free cellphones to the poor in order to redistribute the wealth of rich people. Since then two groups are mudslinging at each other.

It’s true that government provides free cellphones to the poor and disabled people. But the Obama part is not true as Obama didn’t initiate this program. It’s on the run since the administration of Reagan. This program has two parts: one is called the “Link-Up” which provided free landline connection to the poor and the other is called the “Lifeline” which provides waiver on telephone bills. These two programs are simply called “Lifeline” when lumped together.

This service is provided by government approved companies. The three major companies are Safelink Wireless, Assurance Wireless, and ReachOut Wireless.

It is quite clear that people have been calling the service an Obama Phone for some time. To convince yourself, Google “Reagan phone” or “Clinton phone” or “Universal Service Phone” and you will get nothing. On the other hand, Google “Obama Phone” and you will get all the relevant hits. Since the Page Rank algorithm measures “link popularity,” it is highly unlikely that “Obama Phone” is the consequence of that “racist” YouTube video. The phrase has been around for a long time. Someone — perhaps the author of the cited email — came up with the expression, and it stuck probably because it resonated.

People have a genius for associating items and objects with a particular zeitgeist. For example, during the Great Depression shanty towns were called “Hoovervilles” even though Herbert Hoover did not actually build them:

Democrats coined other terms, such as “Hoover blanket” (old newspaper used as blanketing) and “Hoover flag” (an empty pocket turned inside out). “Hoover leather” was cardboard used to line a shoe when the sole wore through. A “Hoover wagon” was an automobile with horses hitched to it because the owner could not afford fuel.”

This was not racist, of course, because Hoover was white. And moreover, those who were coining the phrases were Democrats.

Wherever Elspeth Reeve thinks the phrase “Obama Phone” comes from, it bids fair to stay. The Page Rank will tell the tale. However, there’s a still a chance that if school lunches are allowed to be less politically correct then the widespread use of the term “Obama Meal” can still be avoided.

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