New Romney Ad: So, Obama Just Gutted the Successful Clinton-Era Welfare Reform Law

Posted: Aug 07, 2012 9:22 AM

To be candid, I wasn't sure if Team Romney had it in them to go after Obama on this issue because of the shrill, mindless race-baiting that would undoubtedly ensue.  Here's National Review's executive summary of the president's welfare madness: 

President Obama, through the Department of Health and Human Services, quietly released an official policy directive ... Utilizing an obscure legal device from the original Social Security Act, the administration claimed the right to waive the work requirements for able-bodied people that formed the backbone of a generation of welfare reform. This directive could very well allow the welfare state to regress to its bloated worst ... It gave the states broad freedom to design and implement assistance programs that met their differing needs. But undergirding this flexibility was a set of tough but humane welfare-to-work standards that all states would have to meet. TANF placed a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, and able-bodied recipients were required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition for receiving aid. Robust, clear federal standards for what counts as “work” were vital to making this arrangement function, and to fending off claims from some states that everything from “exercise” to “journaling” counted toward gainful employment.

Which brings us to the new ad.  Bravo:

I'm sure the Left will whip itself up into a racial froth over this, which is why it was wise of the ad-makers to prominently feature white workers at each major step of the spot.  This isn't about race.  This is about the rule of law, rejecting a culture of dependency, and safeguarding an empirically successful bipartisan program against Obama's ideological overreach.  As I discussed in my post on this subject last month, the 1996 welfare reform act established uniform and fairly stringent work requirements in order for able-bodied adults to receive direct payments from US taxpayers in the form of government checks.  Under the previous regime, states had wide flexibility to define "work" down, and several did so to the point that the term became meaningless.  Otherwise capable laggards received federal checks in exchange for doing nothing.  One of the reform's architects, Robert Rector, described the policy's instant positive impact:

The welfare reform law was very successful. In the four decades prior to welfare reform, the welfare caseload never experienced a significant decline. But, in the four years after welfare reform, the caseload dropped by nearly half. Employment surged and child poverty among affected groups plummeted. The driving force behind these improvements was the rigorous new federal work requirements contained in the TANF law.

Obama uprooted this progress in the blink of an eye.  He did so by employing a maneuver that many legal experts view to be patently illegal; the Obama administration exerted executive discretion over a portion of the law that explicitly forbade executive discretion -- precisely to block a future White House from doing what Obama has now done.  The non-partisan Congressional Research Service has confirmed this core element of the legislative language.  Romney's ad doesn't touch on the lawlessness point, perhaps due to time constraints.  But even if it were perfectly legal, Obama's gambit is offensive, counter-productive and wrong.  It turns back the clock to an era of excessive and permissive welfare largesse, a status quo that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president found unacceptable 16 years ago.  The legislative and executive branches came together, worked hard, and hammered out a strong deal to fix the problem.  Legislation was passed and signed into law.  This president does not have the authority to unilaterally undo all of that, and American workers should be outraged that Obama is dragging the country back to the bad old days.  The White House's shameful move had been flying under the radar, barely even cracking into the conservative mainstream.  Now Mitt Romney has acted to turn the harsh glare of the presidential contest onto this controversy.  If he continues to flog it, he'll drag the media along with him, kicking and screaming.  They'd prefer to keep obsessing over the dopey tax returns flap, of course, because it helps insulate their Boyfriend-In-Chief.  Enough.  The Romney campaign seems to realize that it's incumbent upon them to unapologetically drive their own narrative.  More, please.

UPDATE - Let's also pause to recall that Illinois State Senator Barack Obama opposed the 1996 reform back when it was being debated.  His ideological revulsion at the notion of limiting government has been unflinching for decades, and he's simply imposing it now that he's president -- legal authority and real-world outcomes be damned.  Can you imagine what a second term would look like?

UPDATE II - Romney is pounding this on the campaign trail:

The Obama campaign, unsurprisingly, is already going the racial route.