What's the one word you'd use to describe Barack Obama?
The fine folks at Pew asked just this. Indeed, they give you three data points of this question (Sept. '08, February '09, and April '09). It makes for a fascinating peek into the public mind, this report. Scroll down a bit and you'll find find a table for "Obama in a Word."
The top word in September '08? Inexperienced. After that came Change, Intelligent, and Young. Of the 19 words generated, four are obviously negatives, the rest positives (Liberal could go either way, I suppose). In very last place: Socialist. We'll return to that in a moment.
By February '09 the top words are Intelligent, Change, and Honest. Only two are negatives, BUT Socialist has moved up the charts with a bullet, into a tie for #13!
In April '09 the top three are: Intelligent, Good, and Socialist. Interestingly, Liberal has moved into #4 in April after being near the bottom in February. Fascinating. Arrogant makes its first appearance in April, but the overall negatives are not so much changed.
What do I make of all this, especially given Obama's overall good favorability ratings? Clearly Limbaugh and Hannity and the other TV/radio commentators are having an impact on the public mind, cementing for at least some people out there what people know about Obama. These guys hammer the term Socialist again and again (never mind that real European style socialists look at this and kinda laugh, or consider misuse of copyright). Clearly it's working, at least for some folks. I'd have to download the data and dig much deeper to understand what kind of folks are using which labels -- and I might do just that this summer just for the hell of it.
It also suggests the partisan hammering may also be creating an early divide in the public mind about Obama, separating us yet again in the tired Red State/Blue State, you're-for-us-or-you're-against-us, thing. Limbaugh more or less said this the other day, that it's "us or them."
If you want to get theoretical on this and really understand the consequences of labeling, I recommend reading the literature on priming and chronically accessible constructs, found largely in the work on social and political cognition. I might touch on it this weekend if I have time and take Socialist to its likely consequences. I love getting all PhDweeb on this stuff.