Like Kaus, I am at a loss to explain this maneuver on political grounds. (“Requiring that welfare recipients work is a political winner — proven, again and again. . . . And in 2008, Barack Obama didn’t dare suggest that he wanted to do what he has done today. Obama’s given his opponents a huge opportunity to raise the ‘welfare’ issue, to associate him with the unpopular idea of subsidizing women who have children they can’t support, usually out of wedlock — even giving them free community college training that hardworking people who don’t go on welfare can’t get!” )...
Obama's imperious use of executive orders and refusal to enforce the laws of the land fairly and completely is a constitutional disgrace. But his policy judgment is so off-kilter that it also demonstrates Obama’s faulty approach to immigration, welfare, administration of justice, etc. The policy implications are far more politically damaging and reinforce conservatives’ fears that a second Obama term would witness a lurch to the left.
Perhaps this is an instance of a President trying to do what's right. He may have been advised on the issue by someone that has actually read the poverty literature, while work requirements can have a positive impact when the labor market is tight the people forced into work by them are those least able to compete on the labor and most likely to turn to illicit activities if not supported. With high unemployment it is very unlikely that the welfare recipients impacted by the relaxation of work requirements could find decent work, relaxing these requirements may help to alleviate other social problems, aside from the fact that putting food on the table and keeping the lights on for poor kids is a rather decent thing to do. I agree this is almost certainly a political loser but it makes a lot of sense to anyone that has read the poverty literature. In current economic conditions work requirements will almost certainly only drive up the competition for low end jobs and may lead to someone unlikely to keep the job getting it over someone that is more motivated and doesn't need the stick of a benefits cut to work. Even in better economic conditions the impact of work requirements is very small, in current conditions it is all downside and no upside from an economic and social point of view. Perhaps that, and not political considerations, is the motivation here.
It also deserves noting that people never seem to object when the president approves state waivers to tighten welfare, like drug testing or Michigan's restriction of benefits to four years. When states ask for these waivers where is the hue and cry over ignoring current law.