Mitt Romney blasted President Obama on Tuesday over welfare policy, accusing the president of reducing the likelihood some Americans will seek work as Romney makes a play for middle-class voters wary of benefits doled out by the government.
On the president's home turf in Illinois, Romney told supporters that Obama usurped congressional authority and pushed through a welfare overhaul that would undo the bipartisan reforms enacted by Democratic President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1996.
"We will end a culture of dependency and restore a culture of good hard work," Romney said, pledging to reverse changes Obama made to the system.
Romney is specifically targeting an Obama administration directive that could allow states to skirt rules that cut off aid to welfare recipients if they fail to get a job within a certain time frame. Republicans were outraged over the change, saying it gutted the 1996 reforms and that Obama should have consulted Congress in making such a fundamental change in the program.
The White House counters, however, that states can get welfare waivers only if the they can prove that their alternative plan allows more people to find jobs. The administration called Romney's charge that Obama was pushing another big-government fix as "categorically false and blatantly dishonest."
Regardless, some analysts said the issue could prove a winner for Romney this November.
"Welfare is not nearly as popular as Medicare," said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute who specializes in social welfare policy. "Whatever one thinks about the merits of Romney's arguments, it's smart politics. It adds to that narrative of Obama as a redistributor president."
But Romney is also risking additional scrutiny of his own welfare reform record as Massachusetts governor, which could conflict with his rhetoric as a conservative presidential candidate. Democrats said Romney is a calculating candidate motivated by politics rather than principle.
Obama's aides point out that then-Gov. Romney asked the federal government to grant his state a waiver so some recipients could stay on welfare longer.
Romney has drawn comparisons between Obama and Clinton in hopes of making Obama appear less centrist and more liberal. Clinton prided himself on seeking "third way" solutions that bridged Republican and Democratic philosophies.
To thwart Romney's effort, the president's campaign deployed former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to defend Obama.
"I'm always happy when people embrace the New Democratic policies of Bill Clinton," Podesta said in a conference call with reporters. "I just wish they'd tell the truth when they do so."
Romney is hoping to woo the working-class white voters who identify with Clinton but balk over Democratic positions on social policy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich employed a similar strategy during the Republican primary, calling Obama the "food stamp president," but such a message resonates more with the Republican base than with independent voters so vital in the fall election.
Both Romney and Obama will continue to talk about welfare in battleground states over the next few days.
Obama has a two-day swing through Colorado beginning Wednesday, and Romney will embark on a four-day bus tour later this week in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.