ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. — Mitt Romney sought to inject the issue of welfare into the presidential campaign here Tuesday, accusing President Obama of dismantling federal welfare reform and creating a “culture of dependency.”
The presumptive Republican nominee charged that the Obama administration has reversed the popular bipartisan welfare reform that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996 by allowing waivers for states for welfare work requirements.
But the charge drew immediate push back from the Obama campaign, and a direct rebuke of Romney by Clinton himself, who called it false.
Romney’s comments come as his campaign makes a play for middle-class voters with a new offensive focused on welfare. Earlier Tuesday, his team rolled out a new 30-second television advertisement, “Right Choice,” that says, “Obama guts welfare reform.”
The spot is Romney’s latest attempt to cast Obama as a big-government liberal and to drive a wedge between the president and the legacy of the popular Clinton. Experts on the law, however, said the changes were consistent with calls from governors for lighter federal regulations and intended to ease the burden of states seeking flexibility.
“That is wrong. If I’m president, I’ll put work back in welfare,” said Romney, who was campaigning in this suburb just outside Obama’s home town of Chicago. He added, “We will end the culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work.”
The Department of Health and Human Services announced on July 12 that it would consider requests for waivers from states seeking more latitude in administering Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The centerpiece of the 1996 Clinton legislation, TANF established work requirements and time-limited benefits for recipients. Although caseloads dropped sharply as the economy boomed in the late 1990s, state officials and welfare experts say tougher financial times and overly stringent rules have stalled progress.
Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director, said in a memo Tuesday that the rules changes were a sign that “not everyone was enthusiastic about welfare reform.”
“For instance, a man named Barack Obama took to the floor of the Illinois State Senate to announce his opposition. A devoted believer in old-school, big-government liberalism, Mr. Obama had no interest in embracing the welfare reform package,” Chen wrote. “Now as president, with an economy struggling, an election looming, and a dispirited liberal base in need of encouragement, he has decided to turn back the clock.”
Obama campaign officials pushed back hard. In a conference call with reporters, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter blasted the ad as “hypocritical and false.”
She said the administration agreed to allow states to apply for waivers after hearing from governors, including Republicans Gary Herbert of Utah and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who sought relief from cumbersome federal requirements and paperwork. To secure a waiver, however, states must show that their welfare programs will increase job placements by 20 percent, Cutter said.
“No plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be approved, and it will not be approved if it weakens or undercuts or avoids time limits,” she said.
Obama campaign officials also noted that as Massachusetts governor in 2005, Romney was one of 28 Republican governors who petitioned Congress for state welfare waivers that were more expansive than those he attacked Tuesday.
The Obama camp got direct support from Clinton late Tuesday evening, who said Romney’s ad was untrue. He said the waivers proposed by the administration were designed to safeguard time limits and were in keeping with the goals of the 1996 legislation. He called the ad “especially disappointing” in light of Romney’s pursuit of a waiver in 2005.
“We need a bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads,” Clinton said.
“We also heard concerns that some TANF rules stifle innovation and focus attention on paperwork rather than helping parents find jobs,” Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon said last month in a message to state officials. Waivers will be granted to states only for projects deemed likely to improve job prospects for TANF recipients, he said.
Said Sheila Zedlewski, a fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income Benefits and Policy Center: “There’s this misperception that the work requirements in TANF are really strong and effective, when in fact work participation rates have been flat for a decade among people on TANF.”
Ron Haskins, former House Republican staffer and a key figure in crafting the 1996 legislation, said he supported changes in the work requirements that would give states more flexibility to tailor education and training programs to local labor market conditions.
He noted that the waivers Romney assailed were consistent with his repeated vows to lighten federal regulatory burdens.
“The Romney campaign says that incessantly, but in this case, no, no, no,” said Haskins, who is co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families.
But Haskins also had criticism for the Obama administration’s approach, which he said shunned a bipartisan discussion of the issue in favor of regulatory tweaks.
“That’s a thumb in the eye of Republicans,” he said.
Turque reported from Washington. David Nakamura contributed to this report.