Obama campaign defends welfare reform rewrite

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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On Tuesday, President Barack Obama‘s campaign aides mounted an all-hands, all-day defense of the administration’s potentially politically toxic rewrite of popular federal welfare-to-work rules.

Officials argued that Obama is really aiding welfare reform, that GOP governors support their revamp and that GOP governors —- including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — wanted to gut the welfare law in 2005.

The campaign’s push was quickly countered by Romney’s staffers, who argued that Romney vetoed a Democratic effort to relax welfare-to-work rules in Massachusetts.

The Obama campaign’s move was also hurt by the appearance of new recordings showing Obama’s late-1990s opposition to the successful reform.

A 1998 video showed Obama — then an Illinois state senator — declaring that “I was not a huge supporter of the federal plan.” Also, a 1998 audio recording features Obama saying, “the 1996 legislation I did not entirely agree with, and probably would have voted against it at the federal level.”

The Obama campaign jumped into action shortly after Romney’s campaign announced it would criticize the administration’s rewrite this week as an “insult” to hard-working taxpayers.

Romney used a speech in Illinois to push the message to voters in several nearby swing states, including Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio.

“President Obama, in just the last few days, has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare,” he declared. “That is wrong. … I’ll put work back in welfare.”

To boost the message, Romney’s aides released a TV ad called “Right Choice,” charging Obama with damaging the popular 1996 reform. The ad ran in Ohio, and may be run in other states.

Obama’s aides quickly defended the rewrite, saying that Romney supported draft federal legislation in 2005 that would have ended time-limits on welfare and allowed governors more flexibility to write their own work-to-welfare rules.

The rapid, all-day response illustrates the political sensitivity of welfare — and Obama’s aggressive efforts to keep the Romney team off-balance.

The dispute was caused by the administration’s June decision to allow governors to seek exemptions from welfare-to-work rules.

The decision said that states can ask for approval to design their own “demonstration projects” and could get formal exemptions from the reform’s work-to-welfare rules.

The work requirement was a key measure in the 1996 welfare reform law, which President Bill Clinton reluctantly signed into law under GOP pressure. By endorsing the work requirement, Clinton was able to say that he was a centrist following his disastrous losses in the 1994 mid-term elections.

The reform proved successful, and the number of people on welfare dropped sharply.

Throughout the day, the Obama campaign sent out a stream of increasingly aggressive messages and emails trying to counter Romney’s ad, and then hosted an afternoon press event with former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

Romney’s criticism is “completely false,” Podesta told reporters.

The new regulation “created new options to help states meet their needs,” said Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager. States that get a waiver from the welfare-work rules “have to increase job placement by 20 percent,” she said during the press event.

However, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius used looser language in her April 18 letter to Congress, saying that waivers would only be granted to states for proposals that “will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.”

The aides and officials, however, undermined their case by declining to define “work.”

Previous efforts by progressives to revamp the law included proposals to redefine “work” to include training classes, and even transport to and from training classes.

Amid the push by Romney, the campaign’s language became more heated throughout the day.

“Romney’s welfare record? He offered free access to cars for welfare recipients in MA,” charged a tweet from Cutter.

During the midday press conference, White House spokesman Jay Carney declared Romney’s “Right Choice” ad to be “categorically false … blatantly dishonest … an utter misrepresentation [and] …. dishonest and false.”

“STOP THE PRESSES: Mitt Romney is lying again,” Brad Woodhouse, the spokesman for Democratic National Committee tweeted at 2:40 p.m.

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Neil Munro