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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Candidates’ Congressional Past

Q: How long have Obama and McCain been in Congress?

A: Obama has been in the U.S. Senate since January 2005. McCain joined the House in Jan. 1983 and the Senate four years later. A chain e-mail that purports to show their time in Congress give a bogus comparison.


Could you address this e-mail?

I know that some of you don’t like to read long drawn out missives… so here’s the executive summary………




John McCain

26 Years

22 years

Barrack Obama

*143 Days


*actually present in the Senate chamber working

Summary Concluded. Frightening what so many Americans think qualifies one to be Commander in Chief and leader of the free world.


Sen. John McCain clearly has served longer as a public servant than Sen. Barack Obama. No one would dispute that. But even a quick look at this e-mail reveals how misleading it is. The comparison gives the number of years McCain has been a congressman and claims to present the number of days Obama has been physically present in the Senate chamber. McCain certainly hasn’t been physically present in the Congress every day for 26 years. (Technically, he’s been a member of Congress for more than 25 years, not quite 26 yet.)

Also, the count given for Obama’s working days is wrong. It doesn’t count any days for Obama since he announced a presidential exploratory committee, and it’s unclear whether the count is correct for any measure. One conservative blogger told us she got the number from "some young guy in the Senate."

We’ll Count This, But Not That
This e-mail fails to include any time in the U.S. Senate since Obama announced he would form an exploratory committee to seek the presidency. It does include, however, the time McCain spent seeking the presidency, both in 2000 and in this election. It also overlooks the time Obama spent in the Illinois state Senate. (And the e-mail misspells Obama’s first name.)
The earliest, dated authored reference containing the "143 days" number is a May 2008 post by Cheri Jacobus of the right-leaning blog The Loft.  The post reads:


Jacobus: From the time Barack Obama was sworn in as a United State Senator, to the time he announced he was forming a Presidential exploratory committee, he logged 143 days of experience in the Senate. That’s how many days the Senate was actually in session and working. 


Wrong. That’s not the number of days the Senate was in session. From the time Obama was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2005, until the day heannounced his exploratory committee on Jan. 16, 2007, the Senate was in session 304 days, according to the Secretary of the Senate’s official count.

When we called to ask Jacobus how she arrived at her count, she called back and left a message saying the number was provided by "some young guy in the Senate" who gave her an "advanced calendar," and that he was looking at the number of days the Senate was "actually voting." Jacobus also said that she is "not a journalist" and that it has "been quite a while" since she wrote the post. We called and left a message with Jacobus in an attempt to follow-up for more details, but we have yet to hear back.

Senators do indeed work on days that they may not actually vote. For example, Obama’s trip to Afghanistan and Iraq earlier this year was made in his capacity as a senator. The press was forced to settle for Department of Defense footage and photos, since they weren’t allowed to join him during his congressional delegation trip.

It’s also worth noting that Obama has been in the Senate and has voted since January of last year, but the e-mail leaves out that information in its bogus comparison.

What About John McCain?

It’s true that John McCain has 22 years of military service under his belt, compared with Obama’s zero. And McCain was sworn in on Jan. 3, 1983, as a member of the House and on Jan. 3, 1987, as a member of the Senate, where he has been ever since. In total McCain has been in Congress (House and Senate) for nearly 26 years.

Even if the e-mail measured Obama’s and McCain’s time in Congress using the same metric, McCain’s tenure is far longer.

–Emi Kolawole


Jacobus, Cheri. Obama’s 143 Days of Senate Experience. 5 May 2008. The Loft Blog. 24 Sep. 2008.

Obama, Barack. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

McCain, John. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Zeleny, Jeff. Obama Takes Big Step Toward 2008 Bid. 16 Jan. 2007. The New York Times Politics Blog. 24 Sep. 2008.