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By Eric Stirgus October 8, 2012

Is private-sector experience in short supply in the Obama administration?

Ah, the stealthy side of politics.

Stolen campaign yard signs. Anonymous fliers mailed to voters disparaging an opponent. And then there’s the chain email.

A PolitiFact Georgia reader forwarded us an email sent her way about President Barack Obama and asked us to examine its veracity. The email was full of charts and graphs that would suggest Obama has done a poor job as president. Some have been widely discussed and examined by PolitiFact and other fact-checking operations, such as how many Americans are receiving food stamps and a comparison of unemployment rates under Obama and his two most recent predecessors.

There was one comparison that has come up before that we felt compelled to address since it hasn’t been written about on our site. Under a chart titled "Cabinet Appointments: Prior Private Sector Experience, 1900-2009," it had Obama below the 10 percent mark.

Could it be? Did less than 10 percent of Obama’s Cabinet appointments have private-sector experience before working for the president?

The email ends with a request to forward it to at least two other people.

"100 would be even better," it said.

Those who receive the email may want to hold off before doing so to make sure they’re distributing accurate information.

One consistent theme of criticism leveled against Obama is that he does not comprehend what the American economy needs in order to grow because the president doesn’t understand how the private sector works. Obama campaign officials respond that his economic policies helped keep the nation from falling into a depression and have resulted in a modest recovery.

So what about his Cabinet? Obama critics appear to be fond of claiming the president’s Cabinet had little private-sector experience, using a chart that accompanied a column written in Forbes about Obama’s "business blind spot" in 2009.

Obama had by far the lowest percentage on the chart. John F. Kennedy was the next lowest, with just below 30 percent of his Cabinet appointments having private-sector experience. Most of the others were between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The writer, Michael Cembalest, examined the histories of nine Cabinet positions for the comparison. The departments they headed were Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation and Treasury:

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck talked about the chart on his show shortly afterward, saying less than 10 percent of Obama's Cabinet appointees "have any experience in the private sector." PolitiFact examined Beck’s statement, came across the Forbes article and did its own research. It found three Obama Cabinet members in those nine departments that Cembalest cited had significant corporate or business experience: Steven Chu in Energy, Shaun Donovan in HUD and Ken Salazar in Interior.

Chu headed the electronics research lab at AT&T Bell Laboratories; Donovan served as managing director of Prudential Mortgage Capital Co.; and Salazar has been a partner in his family's farm, and he owned and operated a Dairy Queen and radio stations in his home state of Colorado.

Three other Obama appointees had legal experience in the private sector: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner worked for Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm that advises international corporations on political and economic conditions overseas.

Cembalest said that he did discount the corporate experience of Clinton, Vilsack and Locke. Cembalest acknowledged fault in missing Salazar's business background, saying he would have given him a full point if he had it to do over again. Cembalest said Chu and Donovan did not represent the kind of private-sector business experience he was looking for when doing his study. Cembalest said he did not mean for his research to be used for political ends.

Beck got a False on the Truth-O-Meter for repeating the claim, holding the commentator accountable for his words. Nearly two years later, in August 2011, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., made a similar claim about Obama’s Cabinet during the early stages of her presidential bid.

"[Obama] has virtually no one in his Cabinet with private-sector experience," she said.

Not true. Her claim got a Pants on Fire.

Once again, the chart contains data that the author has since said was missing some information. It seems clear that more than 10 percent of Obama’s Cabinet has private-sector experience. The authors of this chain email should know better by now. We say hit the delete button on this claim. Pants on Fire.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Eric Stirgus

Is private-sector experience in short supply in the Obama administration?

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