In their battle to claim the mantle of welfare reform, President Obama and Mitt Romney have each done so in the name of Bill Clinton, who claimed it as a signature accomplishment of his administration. Now, the former president is jumping into the fray, defending Obama as
Republicans accuse him of tearing down the law's welfare-to-work centerpiece.
Romney's campaign this week began to use Obama's recent changes to the welfare system to stoke claims the current administration is "gutting" the landmark 1996 welfare reform agreement.
Those claims, though, have prompted a partisan battle -- over a law that, until recently, few would have thought would ever surface in the 2012 race. Each candidate is trying to align with Clinton on the issue.
Romney released an ad Tuesday and a web video Wednesday that effectively pitted Clinton against Obama. The latest web video quotes Clinton touting the 1996 welfare-to-work law, then cuts to then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama in 1998 saying he was not a "huge supporter" of the plan. From there, it cites recent changes his administration made to welfare reform, accusing him of "taking the work out of welfare."
The ads were referring to a directive last month that notified states they may seek a waiver for the program's strict work requirements. What that means for welfare recipients is open to interpretation, and depends on what alternative plans the states come up with.
But Clinton, diving into the debate in a statement late Tuesday, rejected Romney's assumptions.
"Governor Romney released an ad today alleging that the Obama administration had weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That is not true," Clinton said.
He noted GOP governors had requested more flexibility and said the Obama administration is trying to make sure the work requirement holds. "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.
The rare entry by Clinton into the thick of the Obama-Romney battle comes after the Obama campaign fiercely decried the ads. Any alternative welfare plans, they note, are still supposed to ensure people are moving from welfare to work.
Still, the fact that the administration is allowing states to come up with alternatives for satisfying the work requirement - like allowing job search programs or vocational training to count - has had a number of Republicans, and not just Romney, concerned about Obama's approach.
"President Obama was a vocal opponent of the innovative, bipartisan welfare reforms that President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed in 1996," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in response to Clinton's statement. "His administration has now undermined the central premise of those reforms by gutting the welfare-to-work requirement. Unlike President Obama, Mitt Romney has a record of fighting to strengthen work requirements."
Romney is likely to continue hitting that message when he holds a rally in Des Moines Wednesday morning, before heading back to the East Coast for fundraisers.
Obama, meanwhile, is courting the female vote with a campaign swing Wednesday in Colorado. Obama is on a two-day tour through the battleground state, and is expected to focus on women's health issues.