How Obama can fix his welfare problem

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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How Obama can fix his welfare problem: Thank goodness all that veepstakes/Paul Ryan business is over and we can get back to welfare reform.

If you remember, back before we were temporarily distracted, Romney TV ads had attacked Obama for planning to give states waivers from welfare work requirements, thereby opening the door to diluting (and in some cases, eliminating) them. The Romney camp must at least think its (oversimplified) attacks on the issue are working, because it’s back with another welfare ad today.

At some point, if these ads keep biting, the attitude of Obamaites is going to shift from ‘Why can’t the MSM protect us from Romney’s lies!’ to ‘Stop the bleeding!”  But stopping the bleeding won’t be easy. The Obama campaign has righteously defended the new HHS rules, after all. If the President suddenly repudiates them he might look guilty, or weak, or not in control, or all three. Even after the rules are withdrawn, many voters might doubt that Obama’s actually changed his mind. Won’t he pursue the same waivers once he’s reelected? If the waivers are bad isn’t that a cause for worry? Romney’s campaign could easily stoke these suspicions.

I think there may be a way for Obama to get around those traps, though. Here’s a simple six-step plan:

1. Have Obama argue that the new waivers were justified, but regret that they weren’t adopted with the bipartisan consultation he thinks would produce a reasonable consensus around the need for a modest amount of state-by-state flexibility and experimentation.

2. In keeping with this sentiment, have HHS secretary Sebelius withdraw the rules until they can be negotiated in 2013 with Congressional Republicans, which (Obama can say) will certainly insure that the work requirements are not, in fact, eroded.

3. Have the people responsible for the waivers leave the administration. They can quit, they can quit in a huff, or they can be fired.  (The Obama Way would be to have them leave voluntarily.) I don’t know who all these people are–but this list from HHS’s Administration for Children and Families is a good place to start.

4. Appoint Ron Haskins as the new head of ACF. Haskins was the leading GOP staffer behind the 1996 welfare reform. He’s now at Brookings, where he’s gone slightly native. But he is respected by virtually all sides and deals very effectively with the press (way more effectively than Romney’s surrogates). Bonus for Obama: Haskins supports and defends the substance of the new worker-requirement waivers–if they aren’t allowed to devolve into BS non-work (“underwater basketweaving“). But he also thinks HHS contradicted the spirit (if not the letter) of the reform law when it claimed the power to issue the waivers without passing a new statute, or even consulting congressional Republicans. That’s the perfect set of views (from Obama’s point of view) for a modified limited not-too-guilty pullback.

5. Have Obama, at some point, tout welfare work requirements in ways that can’t be mistaken for paleoliberal fudging. Suggested lines: “We do not want the welfare rolls to grow.  We want them to shrink. Some of my friends on the left used to measure success by the number of people on aid. That was misguided. It’s not good for people to be dependent on a welfare check.” … Also: “The government should not be in the business of subsidizing what can too easily become a culture of non-marriage and non-work.” … Or: “Everybody has to work or at least look for work. It’s too easy to make excuses. The government needs to push back against that.”**

6. Then back to Mediscare!

It’s hard to believe that Romney could keep running his welfare ads if a) the policy doesn’t exist anymore and b) he just gives Obama an opportunity to deliver more tough Clintonian sound bites about the need to replace welfare with work. …

P.S.: You’re welcome. All I ask is half what Plouffe makes in a speech to a single unsavory foreign audience! …


** — If President Obama wants to propose public “workfare” last-resort jobs–so the work obligation can be enforced even in a recession–that would be a policy plus but an election minus, at least if it conjured up the image of a new bureaucracy creating “stimulus” style makework. Instead, Obama would probably choose to emphasize the possibility of subsidized private jobs, an idea with a checkered history but excellent focus group scores..

Mickey Kaus