Obama Shifts on Welfare Reform

By Teddy Davis

Jul 1, 2008 12:19am

ABC News’ Teddy Davis and Gregory Wallace Report: Barack Obama aligned himself with welfare reform on Monday, launching a television ad which touts the way the overhaul "slashed the rolls by 80 percent." Obama leaves out, however, that he was against the 1996 federal legislation which precipitated the caseload reduction.

"I am not a defender of the status quo with respect to welfare," Obama said on the floor of the Illinois state Senate on May 31, 1997. "Having said that, I probably would not have supported the federal legislation, because I think it had some problems."

Obama’s transformation from critic to champion of welfare reform is the latest in a series of moves to the center. Since capturing the Democratic nomination, the Obama campaign has altered its stances on Social Security taxes, meeting with rogue leaders without preconditions, and the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.’s, sweeping gun ban.

The shift in Obama’s rhetoric on welfare reform has proceeded in stages. When former President Bill Clinton was poised to sign welfare reform while running for re-election in 1996, Obama called it "disturbing." A decade later, as an underdog running for president against Clinton’s wife, he spent 2007 avoiding the subject. By the time Obama emerged as the Democratic frontrunner in the spring of 2008, he began leaving the impression that he was for it all along. 

During a 1996 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Obama could not conceal his disappointment in his fellow Democrat. "Bill Clinton? Well, his campaign’s fascinating to a student of politics. It’s disturbing to someone who cares about certain issues. But politically, it seems to be working," said Obama.

Calling himself a believer in "making lemonade out of lemons," Obama co-sponsored a 1997 bill approved by the Illinois legislature and signed by the governor which made changes to state programs to help move people from welfare to work.

He made clear at the time, however, that he probably would have opposed the federal welfare overhaul. Speaking on the floor of the Illinois state senate, Obama described his on-going concerns as including a lack of job training, insufficient oversight, and
provisions blocking legal immigrants from receiving benefits.

While the states played an important role in helping people make the transition from welfare to work, the truly controversial decision which sparked the dramatic reduction in the welfare rolls was the one made by Clinton at the federal level.

The bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Clinton included work requirements and time limits. It included fewer supports for people moving from welfare-to-work than Clinton had originally envisioned. Though later restored at the federal level, it also included an end to benefits for legal immigrants which both Clinton and Obama found objectionable.   

Clinton said it was far from perfect legislation. But unlike Obama who looked at its flaws and said he probably would not have supported it, Clinton signed it.

"Today, we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be, a second chance, not a way of life," said Clinton at the 1996 bill signing.

While campaigning for president in 2007, Obama refused on two occasions to say if he would have signed the same welfare-reform bill approved by the husband of his top rival.

After addressing the International Association of Firefighters on March 14, 2007, Obama told ABC News, "I tend not to look back to what would have been done 10 years ago. We’re talking about what I’m going to be doing for the next 10 years."

When ABC News posed the same question four months later, Obama again refused to answer.

"I’m not going to re-litigate what happened back in the 90s," said Obama at a July 17, 2007, press conference in Washington, D.C. "I’m talking about what’s going to be happening going forward."

"Bill Clinton isn’t on the ballot," he added.

Once he had become the Democratic frontrunner in the spring of 2008, Obama signaled that he had always backed the 1996 welfare reform.

Asked if he would have vetoed the reform measure, Obama told The New York Times in a story published on April 11, "I won’t second guess President Clinton for signing."

Now, with the Democratic nomination firmly in hand, Obama is going one step further. In an ad airing in 18 states, including 14 carried by President Bush in 2004, Obama is celebrating a reduction in the welfare caseload made possible by legislation he originally opposed.

Watch the ad.

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