Until this week, the Obama campaign's strategy of interest group payoffs and demonization of Romney seemed, if tawdry, at least a possible route to re-election. The president's promises to deliver more and more "free" stuff for carefully selected grantees -- adorned in the language of sticking up for the "middle class" -- appeared to have a chance of success.
But the decision to embrace one of the least popular Democratic positions of the past 100 years -- opposition to the work requirement for welfare recipients -- is inexplicable politically. It's also illegal and imperious. Let's stick with politics, because it's old news that Obama has contempt for the rule of law. He's declined to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" on many subjects: immigration, the Defense of Marriage Act, labor laws and environmental rules, among others. Those were lawless but politically logical acts. Not this.
Welfare policies (along with weakness on defense and crime) had been a vulnerability for Democrats throughout the 1970s and 1980s -- an Achilles heel that Bill Clinton recognized in 1992. His promise to "end welfare as we know it" was the gravamen of his claim to "new Democrat" status. Once safely elected, Clinton downgraded welfare reform, and, in fact, increased funding for all of the traditional welfare programs in the federal budget. But when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994, they took the initiative. By 1996, after vetoing two welfare reform bills, Clinton was advised by Dick Morris that if didn't sign the legislation, he wouldn't be re-elected; it was that important to voters. Immediately after signing the bill, Clinton's approval rating on welfare jumped by 19 points.
The law changed the old AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In place of the open-ended entitlement to benefits for unmarried women and their children, the law imposed a five-year limit and the requirement that those able to work seek employment. In 2005, the work requirements were strengthened.