By Mike Lillis - 08/07/12 05:24 PM EDT
Mitt Romney on Tuesday launched an aggressive new messaging front against President Obama, accusing the president of "gutting" the bipartisan welfare reforms crafted by former President Clinton in the mid-1990s.
In a new television ad, the GOP presidential hopeful hammers Obama for granting new flexibility to state welfare programs, suggesting the changes will empower low-income recipients to collect government checks without working — or even looking for work — as the Clinton-era law required.
The message is a dog whistle of sorts to white, blue-collar voters — a group Obama has struggled to court and both sides are fighting to woo in key swing states like Ohio, Colorado and Florida.
It also aims to paint Obama as a supporter of big-government solutions to improve the economy at the expense of both personal responsibility and job creation.
At a campaign stop in the northwest suburbs of Chicago on Tuesday, Romney said the '90s-era welfare plan "reformed welfare to encourage people to work. They did not want a culture of dependency to grow in America."
"That was a great accomplishment," he continued. "I hope you understand that President Obama in just the last few days [has] tried to reverse that accomplishment."
Complicating the Republicans' argument, however, the increase in state flexibility provided by the Obama plan is something Republicans have long supported in areas as diverse as healthcare, education and even welfare reform. Indeed, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney himself had pushed for more state-based decision-making power under the Clinton-era welfare law.
In a 2005 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Romney joined a long list of Republican governors in backing legislation to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), emphasizing that it must provide "states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations."
"Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work," the Republicans wrote at the time.
The GOP's push for greater state power hasn't been lost on the White House and congressional Democrats, who have accused Romney of hypocrisy for attacking Obama's plan for more state flexibility under TANF. Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Tuesday that Romney is simply "not telling the truth."
"The truth is that the President is giving states additional flexibility only if they move more people from welfare to work — not fewer," Smith said in an email. "By falsely attacking a policy that both he and his Republican allies have supported for years, Romney is once again flip flopping on a position he took in Massachusetts, and demonstrating that he lacks the core strength and principles the nation needs in a President."
And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the ad an "utter misrepresentation" of president's policies.
"Hypocrisy knows no bounds," Carney said in reference to Romney backing the TANF legislation.
"Perhaps his argument is with his past self and I suppose that should not be a surprise," Carney noted.
Jonathan Burks, Romney's deputy policy director, defended the 2005 letter Tuesday, saying the flexibility Romney was seeking was not related to TANF's work requirements.
"The governors were not requesting a waiver of the key work requirement," he said.
At issue is a memorandum issued last month by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) offering TANF waivers to states that want "to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The agency included a list of sample projects states might want to pursue, including those "that demonstrate attainment of superior employment outcomes if a state is held accountable for negotiated employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements."
That provision, Republicans charge, is an indication that Obama is ready to roll back the requirement that, for the state to receive federal TANF funding, a certain percentage of TANF beneficiaries must be working or looking for work.
The change sparked an uproar from some Republicans on Capitol Hill, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who joined forces last month to introduce legislation blocking any administrative move to waive the workforce requirements.
"Gutting welfare work requirements with the stroke of a pen and without congressional input is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand,” Hatch said at the time.
Democrats have been quick to push back. Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, said the HHS waivers do nothing to change funding levels or extend the length of benefits.
"The only change is states are allowed to focus on outcomes, rather than on process and paperwork," Levin said last month. "Republicans used to support state flexibility, but now they seem to think Washington always knows best.”
Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to Romney, declined to say how much the campaign is spending on the new welfare ad, but suggested the buy will be significant.
"I can assure you that people are going to see this ad," he said during a conference call with reporters.
— Amie Parnes contributed.
— This story was posted at 12:12 p.m. and updated at 1:24 p.m.