President Reagan, insisting that his long-held skepticism about welfare has been borne out, urged conservatives today to join "a new bipartisan consensus" favoring massive overhaul of federal public assistance programs.
Speaking to a group of loyalists, Reagan kicked off a weeklong emphasis on welfare reform designed in part to fend off suggestions that his crisis-plagued Administration lacks direction and drive.
"I think truly that the bulk of the people on welfare aren't just lazy bums or cheaters," Reagan said. "They want nothing more than to be independent, free of the social workers and out on their own once again."
Over the next few days, Reagan will emerge briefly from a seclusion induced by the Iran- contra scandal and his recovery from prostate surgery to promote welfare reform as a top national priority for Congress and the states.
In his pep talk to the conservatives, delivered in the Old Executive Office Building, Reagan depicted the welfare system as the failed outcome of well-intentioned social programs instituted in the mid-1960s.
Reagan took a swipe at liberals who frame the issue as one of "compassion" and asserted that years of rising poverty, even in the face of increased spending on social programs for the poor, have begun to persuade Americans that "the federal welfare system has become a poverty trap."
"I just think that conservatives and Republicans can now join with liberals and Democrats in reappraising that entire system and examining the reason for its failure," Reagan said.
"All of us care about the poor. All of us want to see the tragedy of poverty ended," Reagan said. "So, let's get to work."
Absence Raised Questions
The emphasis on welfare reform, a centerpiece of the modest legislative agenda outlined in Reagan's State of the Union speech Jan. 27, comes at a time when his absence from public view has spawned questions about his presidency.
White House officials acknowledged the plan for "welfare reform week" was crafted not only to follow up on the State of the Union message, but also to show Reagan as dedicated to a substantive list of priorities for the last two years of his Administration.
The White House campaign has a political dimension as well--to sound a theme of compassion in the face of drastic cuts in government spending and reorient the debate over the future of federally funded welfare programs.