Obama Channels Reagan on Welfare

Oil painting by Tim O’Brien.

On August 7, Mitt Romney did not slam Barack Obama for presiding over a welfare system which leaves the poor to sell their blood.  Barack Obama did not skewer Mitt Romney for touting a post-reform status quo that drives women back to their abusers.  Instead, the president and his Republican challenger accused each other of coddling the poor.

In the hours after the Romney camp debuted an ad hitting Obama on welfare reform, liberal commentators made a few important points: The ad’s allegation — that Obama had gutted “welfare reform” — was false, and undeserving of “he said, she said.”  Romney’s position — that state waivers betrayed the law — clashed with his prior stance as Governor.  And Romney’s message appealed to the same resentments that infused and instigated the nineties welfare debates.

What’s gone nearly unnoticed is the zeal with which the Obama campaign stoked the same resentments in its pushback.  A campaign statement charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”  Only Obama can protect us from a Republican regime of hand-outs and Oprah-style free cars for the undeserving poor.

On a Tuesday afternoon conference call, the campaign again hit Romney for having been wobbly on time limits, which deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter called “the core of the bipartisan welfare reform.”  (Hence politicians’ insistence on measuring the policy’s success by how many people ceased getting benefits, and their refusal to even track what happened after that.)  Campaign Policy Director James Kvaal fleshed out the free car attack in near-pornographic detail: Romney’s program “paid for the cost of their insurance, deductions, tax, title, registration, repairs, even their Triple A membership. And if the people who transitioned to work later lost their jobs and went back on welfare, they were allowed to keep their free cars.  In one year alone, Romney’s Wheels for Welfare program cost Massachusetts tax-payers 400,000 dollars.”

The Obama campaign didn’t explicitly state its opposition to “Wheels for Welfare,” (a follow-up e-mail went unanswered), but its words suggested as much.  Worse, they suggested that the campaign saw the program as inherently self-refuting, as if the perversity of taxpayers subsidizing drivers on the dole was just self-evident.  Never mind that the cars were donated by non-profits, or that what the government paid for was contingent on submitting pay stubs, or that the beneficiaries had to be parents, with clean driving records, with the prospect of work somewhere unreachable by public transit.

And never mind US Senator Obama’s 2007 recognition that “we didn’t give enough tools to people to get out of welfare,” including transportation, because “if it costs you about two hours or three hours salary just to get to the job, then you don’t have enough left over to pay your bills if you have a job.”  Perhaps that was just another stage in the president’s evolution on the issue: from calling Clinton’s plan to sign the bill “disturbing,” in ’96, to touting his role in having “slashed the rolls” in ’08, to slamming Romney for covering roadside assistance for the working poor.

Meanwhile, as non-profit director and former welfare recipient Diana Spatz wrote last winter, “if the measure of success is poverty reduction, TANF has failed.”

Of course, it could always be worse: The president could personally be spinning a tale of welfare queens in pink cars driving around on the taxpayer’s dime.

Perhaps he’s saving that for the debates.