Will Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act "Remake Politics?"

Dec 19, 2013
B. Rose Huber
Woodrow Wilson School

President Barack Obama's two signature first-term legislative victories – the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Dodd-Frank Act – are now the laws of the land, but the political battle over their entrenchment continues. Will these landmark reforms survive? And, if so, will they create new politics going forward?

In a timely piece published in Perspectives on Politics, Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, and Eric Patashnik, professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia, argue that feedback on policies has been stymied throughout history, and therefore, the ability for public policies to remake politics is contingent, conditional and contested.

"Take the ACA for example," Zelizer said. "The assumption was that as benefits rolled out, more people would become invested in the ACA, and the opposition would diminish, similar to what occurred with the Social Security Act and Medicare. However, the government underestimated the Republican opposition and its ability to cause problems – rejecting Medicaid expansion, attacking the program's budget, and shaping the public's perception of the program. Positive feedback was just not at all inevitable."

Zelizer and Patashnik trace the evolution of reforms, drawing heavily upon how major policy initiatives create, or fail to create, new political relationships and structures on the ground. The authors show how some of the most successful programs had fast rollouts, like the Medicare program, which was passed in 1965 and up and running within a year. However, if the benefits of a policy are not immediately forthcoming – as was seen with the Social Security program in the late 1930s – problems begin to arise.

"Of course, Social Security ultimately became America's most-beloved social program, but only after Congress reworked the program to strengthen its base of support," said Zelizer. "New policies are almost always trial-and-error affairs."

Turning toward the ACA and Dodd-Frank Act as examples, the authors argue that political scientists know how strong feedback can influence politics but not as much about when feedback will or won't happen. They show that the absence of positive feedback is often the product of initial policy design features. Likewise, even after a reform is signed into law, the strength and character of feedback can be shaped by the strategic choices that happened beforehand. And, given the dense infrastructure of existing public policies, agencies and organized interest groups in Washington, the project of sustaining reforms that can deliver enduring value to citizens has become enormously challenging.

"While progress is being made, the opposition to Obamacare has not vanished," said Zelizer. "And, if Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are to realize their full transformative potential, President Obama will need to devote a significant amount of his second term political capital to safeguarding the legislative accomplishments of his first."

"The Struggle to Remake Politics: Liberal Reform and the Limits of Policy Feedback in the Contemporary American State" was published in the December print issue of Perspectives on Politics.