Perspectives on Politics


Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era

Suzanne Mettlera1

a1 Cornell University. E-mail:


President Barack Obama came into office with a social welfare policy agenda that aimed to reconstitute what can be understood as the “submerged state”: a conglomeration of existing federal policies that incentivize and subsidize activities engaged in by private actors and individuals. By attempting to restructure the political economy involved in taxation, higher education policy, and health care, Obama ventured into a policy terrain that presents immense obstacles to reform itself and to the public's perception of its success. Over time the submerged state has fostered the profitability of particular industries and induced them to increase their political capacity, which they have exercised in efforts to maintain the status quo. Yet the submerged state simultaneously eludes most ordinary citizens: they have little awareness of its policies or their upwardly redistributive effects, and few are cognizant of what is at stake in reform efforts. This article shows how, in each of the three policy areas, the contours and dynamics of the submerged state have shaped the possibilities for reform and the form it has taken, the politics surrounding it, and its prospects for success. While the Obama Administration won hard-fought legislative accomplishments in each area, political success will continue to depend on how well policy design, policy delivery and political communication reveal policy reforms to citizens, so that they better understand how reforms function and what has been achieved.

Suzanne Mettler is Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions, Department of Government at Cornell University (


The author is grateful to Julianna Koch for excellent and extensive research assistance on this paper. Grants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the Spencer Foundation supported the Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Survey of 2008, some results of which are discussed herein. For helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, she thanks E.J. Dionne, Larry Jacobs, Kimberly Johnson, Desmond King, Adam Sheingate, Helen Thompson, and participants at the conference on “Reconstituting the American State: The Promise and Dilemmas of Obama's First Year,” March 11–12, 2010, Nuffield College, Oxford. The conference was sponsored by the Mellon Trust Fund.