Each presidential campaign has stretched the truth in its ads about the opponent’s record, but the Romney team’s ads about the Obama administration’s welfare policy panders to one of the lowest common denominators: good old-fashioned racial stereotyping.
In fact, PolitiFact.com, a site run by the Tampa Bay Times, which fact-checks political ads and statements, gives the ad its lowest rating: Pants on Fire.
The ad opens with then-President Bill Clinton signing the welfare reform act in 1996, which put time limits on government assistance and was intended to steer people toward employment and independence from public assistance.
“But on July 12,” the ad says, “President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check, and ‘welfare to work’ goes back to being plain old welfare.”
What the ad really refers to is a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that states would be allowed to try different ways of meeting the work requirements of the federal law, which requires states to show they are moving people off welfare and into the workforce.
That’s not exactly cutting you a check to sit home and eat Bon Bons in your bunny slippers.
But the Romney campaign, in a memo that it released as the ad debuted, said that Obama wanted states to “consider approaches that remove work participation rate requirements altogether.”
According to PolitiFact, the HHS letter has no such language and, in fact, says the agency will only consider proposals that “improve employment outcomes.”
But the truth appears to be a flexible concept in the current political landscape.
“That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,” PolitiFact said of the Romney ad. “By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs—HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.”
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Twisting words and taking them out of context has become part and parcel of campaigning. What is particularly sinister about the ad, however, is the underlying implication that the president is making it possible to keep welfare recipients on the dole longer without requiring them to do anything to pull themselves out of poverty.
With overall joblessness hovering around 8 percent and black unemployment about 14 percent, exactly where are these jobs that welfare recipients are looking to be excused from?
Once again, the Republicans, generally, and the Romney campaign, specifically, are employing a divide and conquer strategy. If they can create division among Americans, a caste system, if you will, then certain groups of voters will become outcasts, the “others” who don’t deserve a vote, the kind of people the rest of us don’t want to be associated with, the kind who vote for Obama.
In the ad all the hard-working faces you see are white. There’s a glimpse of the back of a man’s head who might be black, but you never get a chance to focus on him. No doubt, the campaign strategy was to avoid criticism that the ad equated welfare with black folks, but when it appears the only people working hard for their benefits are white, what’s the difference?
In fact, more white people (39 percent) are on welfare than people of color (38 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic). Overall, the percentage of Americans who derive more than 50 percent of their income from welfare is just 1.7 percent of the 29 million Americans who receive some sort of assistance.
So in the end, the GOP is simply looking for ancillary issues to beat the president with so that the Obama team gets tied up fighting and correcting errors in campaign ads instead of focusing on telling Americans why they should vote for him and Romney can run on issues that appeal to the basest of emotions, truth be damned.
Pants on Fire—remember that.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”