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Romney continues welfare charge, says Obama wants 'spirit of dependence'

DES MOINES, Iowa, and WASHINGTON -- For a second consecutive day, Mitt Romney and his allies accused President Obama of trying to undermine bipartisan welfare reform by removing the requirement that recipients work to receive payments, an attack that has many independent fact checkers, as well as Democrats, crying foul.

"Back at that time, then-Sen. Obama, was opposed to putting work together with welfare," Romney said of the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform law, passed when President Obama was an Illinois state senator. "Now he’s president. Just a few days ago, he put that original intent in place. With a very careful executive action he removed the requirement of work from welfare. It is wrong to make any change that would make America more of a nation of government dependency. We must restore it and I will restore work in welfare.”

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney emerges from a corn field with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey while touring the farm of Lemar Koethe.

First Read and independent fact-checkers called the attack that Obama was trying to "gut" the work requirement in welfare -- debuted by Romney yesterday in a television ad and on the stump -- misleading.

Former President Bill Clinton issued a statement last night also calling the charge "not true." "The Administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach," Clinton said in a statement.

As far as whether Obama was for or against welfare reform in 1996, there's fodder for both sides. Obama said then he would not have voted for the federal version, but, since it had passed, co-sponsored Illinois' version to adapt to the law.

The Romney campaign's policy director Lanhee Chen yesterday charged in a memo that Obama "took to the floor of the Illinois state senate to announce his opposition. A devoted believer in old-school, big-government liberalism, Mr. Obama had no interest in embracing the welfare reform package that linked welfare to work. Now as president, with an economy struggling, an election looming, and a dispirited liberal base in need of encouragement, he has decided to turn back the clock."

But the Obama campaign's policy director James Kvaal shot back yesterday on a campaign conference call with reporters. “As a state senator he worked with Republicans in Illinois to implement welfare reform," Kvaal said. "Back then his work earned him praise from Republicans in the state senate. One of whom thanked him for his bipartisan support and work to get welfare reform done in Illinois.”

Politifact seemed to settle this back in August of 2008 after Michelle Obama claimed of her husband, "It's what he did in the Illinois Senate, moving people from welfare to jobs...."

Politifact called her statement "mostly true" with some caveats:

"President Bill Clinton and Congress significantly overhauled welfare in 1996, requiring recipients to work and setting time limits on benefits. The states in turn had to change their laws to meet the new federal requirements. In 1997, Obama signed up as a chief co-sponsor (one of five in the Senate) on Illinois' version of the legislation. But the Illinois governor at the time, Republican Jim Edgar, got a lot of credit as well. Press reports from the time referred to the plan as 'the Edgar plan.' This isn't the first time Obama has referred to Illinois laws as if he passed them singlehandedly.

"Also, in floor remarks from the time, Obama expressed less than full support for the federal legislation. He was particularly concerned that people removed from welfare would be able to receive training so they could earn a living wage.

" 'I am not a defender of the status quo with respect to welfare,' Obama said on the Illinois Senate floor. 'Having said that, I probably would not have supported the federal legislation, because I think it had some problems. But I'm a strong believer in making lemonade out of lemons. ... I think this is a good start, and I urge support of this bill.'

"Nevertheless, the legislation's primary role was welfare reform, and the legislative record shows that Obama had a leadership role in getting it passed."

Before an audience of several hundred supporters in a high school auditorium here, Romney doubled down on the welfare attacks, calibrated to appeal to white middle- and working-class voters, insisting that the president was intent on creating a culture of dependency in America. 

"Of course we take care of, in America, the people who can’t take care of themselves," Romney said. "When it comes to the spirit of America, I want to restore the spirit of independence. I do not want to install a spirit of dependence on government. And that’s the direction we’re going.”

In a conference call with reporters timed for the conclusion of Romney's remarks, former house speaker Newt Gingrich -- a co-architect of the welfare reform plan, along with Clinton -- praised the former president while attacking the current president, and said he felt the welfare reform issue was a good one for Romney to focus on to demonstrate stark differences between the two parties.

"In many ways Obama is the anti-Clinton. Clinton was trying to move the party to the center, Obama is moving it to the left," Gingrich told reporters, then pivoting to next month's Democratic convention, where Clinton is expected to speak before president Obama. He urged wavering Democrats and independent voters to consider "how much weaker and less effective a President Obama is than the man who is nominating him."