"Federal Family" Reunion: Obama Admin's Use Of Phrase Isn't New


Led by journalists at Fox News, media figures have mocked the Obama administration for using the phrase "federal family" to refer to federal agencies involved in Hurricane Irene relief efforts, suggesting that the administration invented the phrase as a "euphemism" for "federal government." However, "federal family" is not a new phrase; it dates back to at least George H.W. Bush's administration and was regularly used by members of George W. Bush's administration when discussing disaster relief.

Obama Administration: "The Entire Federal Family Is Working As One To Support The Affected States"

Janet Napolitano: "The Entire Federal Family Is Working As One To Support The Affected States." In an August 28 statement regarding Hurricane Irene, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said: "Now, the Department of Homeland Security will continue working to coordinate the federal response through FEMA, making sure that the entire federal family is working as one to support the affected states." [The White House, 8/28/11]

Fox, Right-Wing Media Mock Obama Admin For Using "Federal Family" Phrase, Suggest It Invented Term

August 28, 5:45 PM: Fox's Henry Tweets, "Branding Alert: Interesting How WH Dropped Word 'Government' ... Calling It 'Federal Family.' " In an August 28 Twitter post, Fox News chief White House correspondent Ed Henry wrote:

Henry Tweet 1

Henry later wrote that "FEMA is like an uncle to me":

Henry Tweet 2

[Twitter, 8/28/11, 8/28/11]

August 29: Fox's Stirewalt Criticizes Obama Admin For Introducing "What May Be The Most Condescending Euphemism For The National Government In Its Long History Of Condescending Euphemizing: 'Federal Family.'" In an August 29 post on FoxNews.com's Power Play blog, Fox News' Chris Stirewalt wrote:

[B]efore Irene fizzled, the Obama White House wanted to make sure that Irene was no Katrina and that, in fact, the president and his aides would be seen in compassionate command of the situation.

Hence the introduction of what may be the most condescending euphemism for the national government in its long history of condescending euphemizing: "federal family."

This new phrase was supposed to, Power Play supposes, make anxious East Coasters feel the love of a caring federal government -- tender squeeze from the Department of Homeland Security, a gentle embrace from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The phrase was a centrally distributed talking point, appearing in op-eds, press releases and statements from across the administration.

No major hurricane had hit the U.S. mainland in the Obama era, and the "federal family" had obviously been saving up a lot of new approaches to differentiate itself from the clan under President George W. Bush.

President Obama, presumably the federal father, came home early from his vacation and addressed the nation on the progress of the storm daily. The agency heads, presumably the siblings of this caring network, fanned out to show intimate engagement with the subject, from sandbagging procedures to storm tracking. [FoxNews.com, 8/29/11]

August 29, 3:44 PM: MichelleMalkin.com: "Out: 'US Government' -- In: 'Federal Family.' " In an August 29 post on Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin's website titled, "Out: 'US Government' - In: 'Federal Family,' " Doug Powers linked to Stirewalt's article and wrote:

"The good hands people" and "like a good neighbor" were already taken, so it was the next obvious choice.


So keep in mind that even if the storm is a category 1, you can expect a caring category 5 embrace from your federal family.


If my "family" was $14 trillion in debt I'd put myself up for adoption. [MichelleMalkin.com, 8/29/11]

August 29, 6:44 PM: Fox's Shannon Bream: "Did it Strike Anybody As Odd, 'Federal Family?' " From the August 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report:

SHANNON BREAM (guest host): All right, some the language that was used this weekend by the White House and others in the administration struck people as odd because it kept referring to the federal family's response to Irene. It didn't say government. Did it strike anybody as odd, "federal family"?

BILL KRISTOL (Fox News contributor): Nothing strikes me as odd anymore. After $800 billion stimulus and Obamacare, we're all just one happy family. The president came back early from Martha's Vineyard. It reassured me Saturday to see him at the FEMA headquarters personally managing all of these things. I mean, it was a little ridiculous, frankly. [Fox News, Special Report, 8/29/11, accessed via Nexis]

August 30, 4:16 PM: Cavuto Hosts Godfather Actor To Mock Obama Admin's "Unusual" Use Of "New" "Federal Family" Phrase. On the August 30 edition of Fox News' Your World, Neil Cavuto hosted Godfather actor Gianni Russo to discuss the term "federal family." Cavuto stated that Russo was "perfect to address this issue." From the broadcast:

CAVUTO: Federal family. Hear something unusual? In the wake of Irene's wrath, the administration is replacing the word "government" with "federal family." Now, we've done a quick search on this and found that the new phrase is in several FEMA press releases like this one, and in this op-ed written by FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. My next guest says, "Beware the family," and he knows a thing or two about families. You see, Gianni Russo played Carlo Rizzi in the The Godfather. And I know what a lot of you are thinking: Well, that's just patently absurd to get someone who played a mob person to address this family thing. Actually, we thought he was perfect to address this issue.


CAVUTO: That's what they're doing with this idea. The federal family. It's popped up in a number of agency brochures and press conferences of late, to refer no longer to the government - which sort of has a - has a bad connotation these days, with federal family. But it follows in the heels of not calling tax increases "tax increases," but "revenue enhancements," no longer "stimulus," it's "projected growth," it's just new words for the same old thing. [Fox News, Your World, 8/30/11]

"Federal Family" Mockery Goes Mainstream

August 31: Tribune: "Hurricane Irene Saw The Emergence Of A Potential Replacement Worthy Of The Advertising Execs On 'Mad Men.' " An August 31 Tribune Co. article published in the Los Angeles Times on the Obama administration's use of "federal family" claimed that "Hurricane Irene saw the emergence of a potential replacement worthy of the advertising execs on 'Mad Men.'" The article noted that "[w]hile the phrase isn't new -- it was used in the last administration -- it certainly feels current." [Tribune Co., 8/31/11, via the Los Angeles Times]

But "Federal Family" Was Used As Far Back As 1992 During George H.W. Bush's Administration

In 1992, Department Of Defense Used "Federal Family" Language Following Hurricane Andrew. In an August 29, 1992, Pentagon briefing following Hurricane Andrew, Maj. Gen. John C. Heldstab said: "The Air Force continues to do yeoman's work in flowing all of the forces of the federal family into [South Florida]. [The Pentagon, 8/29/92, accessed via Nexis]

FEMA Official Grant Peterson: "We Have Brought The Federal Family Together With The Regional Operation Centers." An August 25, 1992, NPR article on Hurricane Andrew relief efforts quoted FEMA associate director Grant Peterson as saying:

We have brought the federal family together with the regional operation centers. They are relocating to state emergency operations centers and alternate operations centers in close but safe zones. So we have coordination between state and federal entities and have all federal resources on alert at this time. [NPR, 8/25/92, accessed via Nexis, emphasis added]

And "Federal Family" Dates Back To Previous Administrations "And Is Used Often By Top Officials"

Washington Post: " 'Federal Family' Dates Back To At Least 2004." From an August 29 post on The Washington Post's Federal Eye blog:

As Hurricane Irene battered East Coast states over the weekend, the Obama administration frequently noted how the "federal family" -- not the "federal government" or "federal agencies" -- responded to the storm.

The term appeared in White House news releases and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that she was "making sure that the entire federal family is working as one to support the affected states."

Some White House reporters -- not as familiar with government operations beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- noticed the branding and surmised that the Obama administration used the term in lieu of the less popular "federal government" mantra.


Joking aside, "federal family" dates back to at least 2004 and is used often by top officials. [The Washington Post, 8/29/11]

Tribune: "Federal Officials ... Note That The Phrase Has Been Used By Top Democrats And Republicans In The Past." The August 31 Tribune article that claimed that "Hurricane Irene saw the emergence" of the "federal family" phrase nevertheless reported that federal officials "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." From the Tribune article:

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.

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


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. [Tribune Co., 8/31/11, via the Los Angeles Times]

Indeed, Bush Administration Officials Regularly Used "Federal Family" Phrase

2001: FEMA Statement To The National Hurricane Conference Includes "Federal Family" Language. In an April 11, 2001, statement by FEMA director Joe Allbaugh to the National Hurricane Conference, Allbaugh stated

ALLBAUGH: Speaking for the federal family, I pledge to you our continued support through the delivery of products and services that will help all of us make it through these difficult decisions. [FEMA, 4/11/01, accessed via Nexis, emphasis added]

2004: FEMA Reports Record Aid For Hurricane Season Response Includes "Federal Family" Language. In a November 29, 2004, FEMA statement, Undersecretary of Homeland Security Michael Brown said:

The level of assistance provided to date shows how destructive this year's storms were, and through the efforts of thousands of dedicated disaster workers FEMA has delivered unprecedented aid to individuals and governments affected by the storms quicker than ever before. ... With President Bush's continuing support, FEMA and the federal family remain committed to staying for as long as it takes to ensure that all recovery needs are met in Florida and the other affected states. [FEMA, 11/29/04, emphasis added]

2005: Homeland Security Official Uses "Federal Family" Language In Senate Testimony. In a June 15, 2005, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, Department of Homeland Security official Robert Stephan stated:

STEPHAN: in terms of the manpower and the subject matter expertise necessary to execute that mission, absolutely no exceptions, the program management responsibilities should rest with the government employee under all circumstances. That's the way the federal government operates, that's the way we assure accountability and measurable progress across what we do.

Not to say that there need to be integrated into this mix appropriately the subject matter expertise that we would need to in order to be able to have on our staff the ability to have vulnerability folks, consequence folks, threat-focused individuals that may or may not exist within the federal family or the government family at this point. [Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, 6/15/05, accessed via Nexis, emphasis added]

2005: Homeland Security Official Uses "Federal Family" Language In House Testimony. In a November 9, 2005, House subcommittee hearing, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson stated:

JACKSON: We really are focused on that. And that's a question the president addressed when he asked the Department of Homeland Security to review with state and local officials the evacuation planning, incident management plans of the major metropolitan areas in this country. So we have launched that enterprise, that investigation, that review collectively.

And an important part of what we're all talking about here is a more vigorous exercise program together with the federal family and our state and local partners. Without that, we will not have the preplanning and the knowledge in advance of these events to be able to manage them effectively. [House subcommittee hearing, 11/9/05, accessed via Nexis, emphasis added]

2006: FEMA Statement On TX, OK, NM Wildfires Includes "Federal Family" Language. In a January 3, 2006, FEMA statement on the Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico wildfires, acting FEMA director David Paulison said:

The entire federal family continues to monitor the fires in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas extremely closely. ... The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise is supporting the operational needs of all states. FEMA will continue to provide coordination and support at the regional and national level as needed. [FEMA, 1/3/06, emphasis added]

2007: FEMA Statement Includes "Federal Family" Language. In an October 31, 2007, statement made by FEMA officials following California wildfires, Paulison said:

We know we have some significant issues coming down the road, particularly, like I said, with housing and debris removal. FEMA, the rest of the federal family is here for the long haul and we're going to make sure that we see this through to the very end. [FEMA, 10/31/07, emphasis added]

2008: FEMA Press Briefing On Hurricane Gustav Includes "Federal Family" Language. In a September 1, 2008, FEMA press briefing regarding Hurricane Gustav, Adm. Harvey Johnson said:

We just concluded about an hour and a half Videoteleconference to look at the post landfall situation with Hurricane Gustav, now at Category 2. Our Videoteleconference, as you know, includes all the Federal family, it includes each of the states that have been impacted by the storm and a number of others that have an equity in how well prepared we are and how we're going to respond to the impact of Hurricane Gustav. [FEMA, 9/1/08, emphasis added]

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