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.
The prospect of asking welfare recipients to seek work struck most liberals in 1996 (including Obama) as degrading, cruel and doomed to failure. Three high-ranking Clinton administration officials resigned in protest. The New York Times called the reform "atrocious," objecting that "This is not reform, this is punishment." Tom Brokaw, interviewing the president, said "all the projections show that ... (the reform) will push, at least short term, more than a million youngsters ... below the poverty line." The Children's Defense Fund called the law "an outrage ... that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children ... and leave a moral blot on (Clinton's) presidency." Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan called the law "the most brutal act of social policy we have known since the Reconstruction. ... In five years' time, you'll find appearing on your streets abandoned children ... in numbers we have no idea." Sen. Edward Kennedy, with characteristic understatement, called the bill "legislative child abuse."
Well, what really happened? Welfare caseloads declined by 50 percent within four years of the law's passage and by 70 percent by the time Obama took office. The overwhelming majority of those who left welfare rolls did so because they found jobs -- and not just the worst jobs, either. By 2001, a Manhattan Institute study found, only 4 percent of former welfare mothers were earning minimum wage. The poverty rate declined from 13.8 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent in 2003. Black child poverty dropped to its lowest levels in history. Childhood hunger was cut in half. It was the greatest social policy success of the past 50 years.
Yes, the late 1990s were boom years for the economy. So had the 1960s and 1980s been. Yet welfare rolls increased during those previous expansions.
Why did Obama do it? Why issue new regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services (in bold violation of the law) granting waivers to states to alter work requirements? Obama's election notwithstanding, there is little reason to think that the nation has moved left on the welfare issue. Most working Americans, including most poor Americans, believe that paying people for idleness is wrong.
Obama is trying to persuade Americans that while he has expanded food stamps to unprecedented levels, extended unemployment insurance to 99 weeks, vastly increased the already overwhelmed Medicaid program, created a new trillion dollar entitlement with Obamacare and expanded the size of the federal government to a percentage of gross domestic product not seen since World War II, that he is not the dependency president. By stepping back into history to embrace the Democrats' nemesis -- unrestricted welfare -- he has clinched the argument for the opposition.