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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan March 7, 2008

SUMMARY: Though often described as an upstart or newcomer, Barack Obama has a solid resume in public service work — 20 years' worth, in fact.

In a race where his opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton has touted "35 years of experience" over and over, Sen. Barack Obama has begun to cite his own experience of 20 years. At a debate in Cleveland, moderator Brian Williams asked Obama to respond to Clinton's charges that he was heavy on oratory and light on action. Obama said:

"You know, she characterizes it typically as speeches, not solutions, or talk versus action. And as I said in the last debate, I've spent 20 years devoted to working on behalf of families who are having a tough time and they're seeking out the American dream. That's how I started my career in public service."

The voters will decide if the gap between 20 and 35 years is significant, but we find Obama's claim of two decades of experience to be accurate. We also find that just about all of his experience is in the field of public service, education or civil rights law.

For our examination, we looked at Obama's official congressional biography, his professional resume and news articles chronicling his political rise in Illinois.

If Obama wins election and takes office in January 2009, he will have served four years in the U.S. Senate representing Illinois.

Before that, he was a state senator in Illinois for eight years. He was also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School during that time.

His schedule from the school shows him teaching two or three classes in the fall and winter terms — usually Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process; Voting Rights and the Democratic Process; and Current Issues in Racism and the Law. In the spring, he would attend the Illinois legislative sessions. It seems a fairly safe bet that, like most legislators, his constituent work — fielding phone calls and helping people in his district — went on year-round. Press reports indicate he would do a small amount of private law practice during the summer. So that's eight years as a public official in Illinois, bringing our total to 12 years.

To get to 20 years of experience, we still need eight years from Obama's career prior to holding public office. Obama graduated from Columbia University in 1983. He worked for a year as a financial analyst; in his memoir he said he spent his days behind a computer terminal, "checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages across the globe" and feeling like "a spy behind enemy lines." He gave up that job to go into community organizing, work he felt was more important politically. He worked three years as a community organizer in Chicago before going to Harvard Law School. We won't count the junior-level business experience as working "on behalf of families who are having a hard time," but the community organizing work does seem to fit the bill. That brings his work experience to 15 years.

At Harvard, Obama began to receive national attention. He became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and was recruited heavily by law firms around the country. (He met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, as a summer associate at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin.)

He graduated in 1991. He ran Illinois Project Vote, a voter registration drive, for much of 1992, and then accepted a position with the Chicago firm Miner, Barnhill & Galland. The firm specialized in political and civil rights work and neighborhood economic development work. He also began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1993. He was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1996 and took office in 1997, so his full-time work after law school comprises five years. That gets us to 20 years.

(During these years, Obama also worked on his career as an author. His memoir Dreams from my Father was published in 1994 and reprinted after his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. A follow-up, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream , was published in 2006. His personal financial disclosure statements show that those books earned him $1.8-million in 2005 and 2006, the majority of his income.)

The other part of Obama's claim is that his experience is "on behalf of families who are having a tough time and are seeking out the American dream." We take that to mean his experience is broadly in the field of public service, and that too is an accurate claim. The bulk of Obama's professional experience is either in elected office or working for a nonprofit, a university or a civil rights law firm.

We looked at Hillary Clinton's claim to 35 years of experience and found it to be Mostly True .

Voters will decide whether the gap between 35 years and 20 years of experience is significant, but we found Obama's statement about his own experience to be True .

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Our Sources

New York Times, Democartic debate transcript , Feb. 26, 2008

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: Barack Obama

University of Chicago, Barack Obama: Curriculum Vitae, class schedule

Associated Press, Law grad Obama got his start in civil rights practice , Feb. 20, 2007

New York Times, First Black elected to head Harvard's Law Review , Feb. 6, 1990

The Center for Responsive Politics, Barack Obama personal financial disclosure statements

Dreams from My Father , by Barack Obama, Adding up Clinton's 35-year claim , Feb. 19, 2008

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