Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

The Struggle to Remake Politics: Liberal Reform and the Limits of Policy Feedback in the Contemporary American State

Eric M. Patashnika1 and Julian E. Zelizera2

a1 University of Virginia

a2 Princeton University


President Barack Obama's two signature first-term legislative victories—the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act—are the law of the land, but the political battle over their entrenchment continues. The question now is whether these landmark reforms will be consolidated and create a new politics going forward. We develop an argument about the limits of policy feedback to illuminate the obstacles to durable liberal reform in the contemporary American state. We argue that political scientists have paid insufficient attention to the fragility of inherited policy commitments, and that the capacity of reforms to remake politics is contingent, conditional, and contested. Feedbacks are shaped not only by the internal attributes of policies, but also by the interaction between policy-specific characteristics, the strategic goals of officeholders and clientele groups, and the political forces arising from a contentious and uncertain political environment.

Eric M. Patashnik is Professor of Public Policy and Politics in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia ( He is the author of Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted (Princeton University Press, 2008) and co-editor (with Jeffery A. Jenkins) of Living Legislation: Durability, Change, and the Politics of American Lawmaking (University of Chicago Press, 2012). He is currently working on a book (with Alan S. Gerber) about the politics of health care reform and evidence-based medicine.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and is the author and editor of numerous books that examine U.S. political leaders, policies, and institutions since the New Deal. His most recent book is Governing America: The Revival of Political History (Princeton University Press, 2012). He is currently completing a book about the Great Society and co-editing a book on elections in American political history.


  The authors would like to thank Jacob Hacker, Jennifer Hochschild, Jeffrey Isaac, Jeffery Jenkins, Forrest Maltzman, Suzanne Mettler, Sid Milkis, Paul Pierson, Steve Teles, Vesla Weaver, and the anonymous reviewers for many helpful suggestions. Justin Peck and Caroline Hearst provided research assistance. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a conference on “The Republic of Statutes” at Yale Law School and won the 2010 award given by the public policy section of the American Political Science Association for the best paper on public policy delivered at the APSA annual meeting.