A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Polishes His Resume

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


Summary

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.

Analysis

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.

 

[TET ]

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. [/TET]

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.

– by Jess Henig

Sources

Obama, Barack. "Dreams From My Father." New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.

Pickler, Nedra. "Obama Visits Grandfather’s Kansas Town." USA Today, 29 Jan. 2008.

Mendell, David. "Barack Obama: Democrat for U.S. Senate." Chicago Tribune, 22 Oct. 2004.

Pickler, Nedra. "Obama Promises Tuition Tax Credit." Associated Press, 17 Jun. 2008.

Secter, Bob, and John McCormick. "Portrait of a Pragmatist." Chicago Tribune, 30 Mar. 2007.

Kurtz, Howard. "Obama’s Patriotic Pitch." Washington Post, 20 Jun. 2008.

Scott, Janny. "Obama’s Account of New York Years Often Differs From What Others Say." New York Times, 30 Oct. 2007.