Obama's Work Ethic

His new ad says he "worked his way" through college and law school. His campaign says he had two summer jobs.


Obama’s latest ad repeats an often-stated claim, saying he "worked his way through college and Harvard Law.” We know Obama took out loans to get himself through school. But the campaign provided information on just two jobs Obama had in those years, and they were both in the summer.

The ad also says he "passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by 80 percent." Actually, the Illinois law was a required follow-up to the 1996 federal welfare reform law worked out by President Clinton and the Republican Congress. Welfare rolls did go down by nearly as much as the ad says, but Obama can't claim sole credit.

Obama's new ad, "Dignity," is largely a 30-second version of his last one, "Country I Love." It, too, will be airing in 18 states, according to the presumptive Democratic nominee's campaign.

Working to Make It Work

The ad begins with the announcer telling us that Obama "worked his way through college and Harvard Law." Actually, Obama took out loans to get himself through college, as we heard in a 60-second ad his campaign began running last month. We don't know how much assistance his family provided.

But "worked his way" through college and law school? The only back-up the campaign provided for this claim was a quote from Obama's book "Dreams from My Father" having to do with a construction job he had one summer while he was in college, and an article mentioning his job as a summer associate one year at a big Chicago law firm. We asked campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor if Obama held jobs during the school year, or other summer jobs, but he said only, "He had the two jobs I told you about." Unless Obama had a good bit more employment than his spokesman was able to describe for us, it's a real stretch to claim he "worked his way" through school.

No More Handouts

As in his last ad, this one touts three bills that Obama "passed," and once again we're not told whether the bills were products of the Illinois Senate or the U.S. Senate. We'll fill you in: In this ad, all three pieces of legislation mentioned were passed in the Illinois Senate.

Obama for America Ad: "Dignity"

Obama: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

Announcer: He worked his way through college and Harvard Law.

Turned down big money offers, and helped lift neighborhoods stung by job loss. Fought for workers’ rights.

He passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by eighty percent. Passed tax cuts for workers; health care for kids.

As president, he’ll end tax breaks for companies that export jobs, reward those that create jobs in America.

And never forget the dignity that comes from work.
The first bill that's cited is the 1997 law that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program in Illinois. The ad claims Obama "passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by 80 percent." That's going too far. First, the law in question wasn't dreamed up out of thin air by its sponsors. It was the follow-up to the welfare reform act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, that President Clinton signed on Aug. 26, 1996. That law gave states the ability to design their own welfare programs as long as they met certain federal requirements, including limits on how long recipients could get benefits. The bill that Obama cosponsored was Illinois' version.
And far from having "passed" the bill single-handedly, Obama was among five Senate sponsors of the measure, as we said previously. It was passed by both chambers of the Illinois Legislature and signed into law by the governor.

Welfare reform was successful in moving people off public assistance. There was about a 78 percent drop in the number of families receiving public assistance in Illinois between 1998 and 2006. But we don't think Obama alone, or even Obama and the four other sponsors of the Illinois law, can take credit for all of this. It was the federal law, hammered out by Clinton and the Republican Congress, that set the wheels in motion and forced states to act. Nationwide, the number of families on welfare declined quite a bit as well, going from 3,146,870 in '98 to 1,805,900 in '06, a decrease of almost 43 percent.

Also, our friends at PolitiFact talked to an expert who said part of the steep drop in Illinois' numbers was due to other factors, such as a state bureaucracy that took an aggressive approach to ejecting people from the rolls, sometimes erroneously.

A Passable Record

Just as in his earlier ad, Obama takes credit for passing "tax cuts for workers." Here, the announcer is talking about the Illinois earned income tax credit, which came into being in 2000. The bill doesn't contain Obama's name as an original sponsor, but according to The Associated Press, he was the linchpin of the effort but let Republicans, who held the Legislature and the governor's mansion, take the lead on it.

The third law Obama claims sole responsibility for is an expansion of Illinois' KidCare program, a low-cost health insurance program aimed at working families making too much to qualify for Medicaid. Obama did in fact sponsor the bill in 2003 that allowed families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level rather than the previous 185 percent to participate. When Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the bill on July 1, 2003, he said it would make 20,000 more children and 65,000 more adults immediately eligible for the program.

Obama Polishes His Resume

His first ad of the post-primary season puffs up his legislative accomplishments.

Obama has released his first post-primary ad, a 60-second spot that's airing in 18 battleground states. In effect, "Country I Love" is Obama's first ad of the general election campaign, and as such it invites scrutiny. (FactCheck will address McCain's first general election ads in a separate article.) We don't find this ad egregiously misleading, but it paints a picture of Obama's accomplishments that could leave viewers with a misimpression or two.

His description of his upbringing and work history are accurate. He describes the "strong values" he says he learned from his mother and her parents. But when Obama discusses his legislative accomplishments, he leaves out some important context.

The ad talks about laws that Obama "passed," but in fact, he sponsored only one of the three bills mentioned and cosponsored another. The third included provisions from some bills he'd sponsored earlier, but his name wasn't attached to the one that passed. And two of the three laws were accomplishments of the Illinois Legislature, not the U.S. Senate.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama's first ad of the general election aims to play up his Midwestern roots, his patriotism and his concern for working families.
Obama for America Ad: "Country I Love"

Obama: America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life's been blessed by both. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn't have much money, but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up. Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated. It's what guided me as I worked my way up -- taking jobs and loans to make it through college. It's what led me to pass up Wall Street jobs and go to Chicago instead, helping neighborhoods devastated when steel plants closed. That's why I passed laws moving people from welfare to work, cut taxes for working families and extended health care for wounded troops who'd been neglected. I approved this message because I'll never forget those values, and if I have the honor of taking the oath of office as president, it will be with a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.

The basic details that Obama provides about his family are correct. His books and various news reports confirm that Obama was raised in Hawaii by his mother and grandparents, who were transplants from Kansas. They weren't rich, though young Obama did attend an elite private school. Obama worked at least one job during college, a construction job that he mentions in "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," and he took out loans to pay for his undergraduate and law school education. After law school, Obama worked for church-based community action groups and tenants' rights organizations in poor Chicago neighborhoods.

Obama also says he passed up "Wall Street jobs" to "go to Chicago instead, helping neighborhoods devastated when steel plants closed." Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post points out that "Obama may have turned down Wall Street jobs after graduating from Columbia University in 1983, but he spent a year working for Business International Corp. in New York before becoming a community organizer in Chicago." But Obama's work at Business International Corporation, despite the fancy name, was by no means an investment banking job. The New York Times reports that the company was "a small newsletter-publishing and research firm, with about 250 employees worldwide, that helped companies with foreign operations ... understand overseas markets." Obama was a researcher and writer for the firm for about a year, after which he moved on to the New York Public Interest Research Group, a consumer protection and environmental reform organization.

So far, so good. But Obama goes on to tout his legislative accomplishments, and those claims don't stand up as well under scrutiny. In order to establish his bona fides as a politician who cares about working families, Obama cites his success with three relevant bills. But he doesn't mention that two of the three pieces of legislation were actually passed by the Illinois Senate, not the U.S. Senate. Obama's campaign tells us that when he says, "I passed laws moving people from welfare to work," he is referring to the bill that created Illinois’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 1997. Obama was one of five original sponsors of the bill, which set limits on public assistance and required welfare recipients to outline plans for moving into the workforce. The law that "cut taxes for working families" is a 2000 bill, on which Obama and 35 others were later added as cosponsors, instituting an earned income-tax credit for the state. Both bills affected only Illinois residents.

The only national law in Obama's ad is the one that "extended health care for wounded troops," and it's dubious whether he can claim full responsibility for that one. H.R. 4986, which became public law 110-181 in 2008, includes provisions from several Obama-sponsored bills. His ideas made it into law, but Obama was not a sponsor or cosponsor of H.R. 4986 itself.

Finally, it has always been our position that it's misleading when a member of a legislative body says that he or she "passed a law," "cut taxes" or makes any similar claim to single-handed lawmaking. It takes more than one legislator to get these things done. In addition to the sponsors and the cosponsors, sometimes dozens of them, the bill needs the support of a majority in both houses. Usually, a governor or president needs to then sign a bill into law, unless the legislature comes up with a veto-proof majority.

So for Obama to say that he "passed a law" casts him as a legislative Lone Ranger, hogging credit that properly belongs to other parties as well.

FactCheck.org: Obama's Work Ethic