In an already polarized election year, President Barack Obama poured more gas on the fires last week when his administration quietly released a policy change saying the Department of Health and Human Services would consider waiver requests from states on federal welfare-to-work requirements.

Conservatives and Republicans immediately accused the administration of trying to gut the landmark — and bipartisan — welfare reform law enacted in 1996.

The administration insisted it was only trying to work with states to allow them find ways to run their programs more effectively — to have caseworkers focus on helping applicants find work instead of policing and monitoring the rigid work-seeking requirements of the law. DHSS officials noted that of the five states that have shown interest in a waiver program — California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada and Utah — two have Republican governors.

No doubt some state officials can make a good case that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families requirements are “burdensome” and take a goodly amount of hours.

But they’re also one of the keys to the success of the reform law which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

The reform law was modeled in part on Wisconsin’s welfare reform laws under then-Gov. Tommy Thompson (and now U.S. Senate candidate) — who joined the Republican chorus of criticism this past week. “It is not an exaggeration to say the president’s decision to hand out checks without requiring work is blatantly calling the question on what kind of nation we will be,” Thompson inveighed in a commentary. “If one is paid not to work, one will tend not to work,” he added.

Whether the administration’s invitation to consider waiver programs actually “guts” the welfare reform act or not depends, of course, of how what those waivers would be an how they are implemented.

Nevertheless, it is disturbing that President Obama would — once again — take it upon himself to bypass laws or simply ignore them.

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If Congress and Clinton had wanted a waiver in the TANF legislation, they would have put one 16 years ago.

They didn’t.

And over the years — in up times and in down — TANF has had the effect of pushing people off welfare rolls and into jobs by enforcing work-seeking requirements and limiting how long families can get aid. That was the original intention, and Obama’s decision to undo that linkage is a perilous one.

That he chooses to do so now, in the midst of an election year, smacks of pandering for votes and once again pushing a class warfare agenda that can only serve to split the nation even more.

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