The Magazine

Obama’s Palace Guard

How media fact checkers made themselves of service to the president in the welfare reform debate

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Bill Clinton’s address to the Democratic convention is widely seen as a pivotal moment in President Obama’s reelection campaign. It was an undeniably powerful speech, but particularly noteworthy were his remarks about the popular and bipartisan 1996 welfare reform Clinton himself signed into law. As a result of the law, Americans were required to work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits, and could not receive benefits indefinitely. The reform shrank welfare rolls dramatically and remains wildly popular to this day.

Oddly for such a popular law—though one Barack Obama opposed—welfare reform has also been the source of a major political controversy over the last two months of campaign season. The Romney campaign has run ads accusing the Obama administration of taking actions that would seriously undermine the reform—allowing states to apply for waivers from the work requirements at the heart of the 1996 law. The Obama campaign and the media have fired back by accusing the Romney campaign of lying about what the administration did in order to foment racial tensions that would encourage working-class white voters to support Romney. Clinton’s convention remarks on the subject neatly encapsulate the Democratic narrative:

The [Obama] administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment.

Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less. .  .  .

But I am telling you, the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true.

But they keep on running ads claiming it.

You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

When it’s presented this way, the argument seems devastating. But almost nothing Clinton said is an honest representation of what the Obama administration did to welfare’s work requirements. The Romney campaign’s accusation that Obama is gutting those requirements is accurate. It’s also telling that Clinton is leaning on allegedly authoritative and independent media fact checkers for validation when their track record of partisanship and botching complex policy issues does not inspire confidence.

Here’s what happened: On July 12, the Department of Health and Human Services released a policy document announcing it would grant waivers to states “in lieu of participation rate requirements” for welfare to work programs contained in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF—which replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program—requires of states that 30 to 40 percent of their welfare recipients engage in “work activities” for 20 to 30 hours a week. Unlike TANF, which has a narrow definition of “work” to keep the states from weaseling out of their obligations under the 1996 law, the language in the Obama administration’s memo is vague, saying among other things that HHS is “interested in testing approaches that build on existing evidence on successful strategies for improving employment outcomes.”

The same day HHS issued this document, Robert Rector—who helped draft the welfare to work requirements back in 1996 and has been called the “intellectual godfather” of welfare reform—cowrote a blog post at the Heritage Foundation, “Obama Guts Welfare Reform,” explaining how the “Obama directive bludgeons the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation.” Even though welfare rolls have dropped by 50 percent since the implementation of welfare reform, Rector pointed out that states in the past routinely tried to dodge the welfare to work requirements by defining “activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as ‘work.’ ” Rector also raised serious questions about whether HHS has the legal authority to issue such waivers. The work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform were specifically included in the legislation to make it impossible for them to be waived.

Following the HHS memo and Rector’s response, the news that the Obama administration is undermining welfare reform started to percolate in conservative circles, though the major media all but ignored the story. Members of the Obama administration “were telling the Associated Press and USA Today that it wasn’t a big deal,” Rector tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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