By some measures, Barack Obama has a thin record. He’s a Senate newcomer who has never worked in the White House, governed a state or run a business.
Democratic presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton points to his resume as evidence that Obama is not ready for the White House. “He was a part-time state senator for a few years, and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for president,” she says dismissively.
Obama’s accomplishments are more substantial and varied than Clinton suggests. And he has a longer record in elected office than she does, as a second-term New York senator.
Obama was a community organizer and led a voter-registration effort in Chicago that added tens of thousands of people to the rolls. He was a civil rights attorney and taught at one of the nation’s premier universities. He helped pass complicated measures in the Illinois legislature on the death penalty, racial profiling, health care and more. In Washington, he has worked with Republicans on nuclear proliferation, government waste and global warming, amassing a record that speaks to a fast start while lacking the heft of years of service.
The Illinois Democrat likes to quote something Bill Clinton once said: “The truth is, you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience. Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change.”
After college, Obama moved to Chicago for a low-paying job as a community organizer. He worked with poor families on the South Side to get improvements in public housing, particularly the removal of asbestos.
“Nobody else running for president has jumped off the career track for three or four years to help people,” said Jerry Kellman, who first hired Obama as a community organizer.
Obama also fought for student summer jobs and a program to keep at-risk children from dropping out of school. More importantly, say those who worked with Obama, he showed people how to organize and confront powerful interests.
“He had to train residents to stand up for their own rights,” said former organizer Loretta Augustine-Herron, who was part of Obama’s Developing Communities Project.
Obama left that job to get a law degree. Afterward, he returned to Chicago and ran Project VOTE. The organization recruited hundreds of registrars to sign up new voters, particularly within the city’s black population. Registration jumped nearly 15 points between the 1992 primary and the general election.
The registration wave was credited with making Carol Moseley Braun the first black female senator and helping Bill Clinton carry Illinois in his first presidential race. It also got insiders talking about Obama as a political candidate.
Obama then spent several years focusing on the law, both as an attorney at a small firm specializing in civil rights and as a lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
As an attorney, he was on the team that successfully sued the state of Illinois for failing to implement a federal voter-registration law. Obama also worked on case of a whistle-blower who lost her job after exposing waste and corruption in a medical research project. The whistle-blower ended up with a $5 million settlement.
Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1996, when Democrats were in the minority. He proposed hundreds of new laws, including universal health care, tougher gun control and expanded welfare, but saw most of them spiked by Republican leadership.
He did have some successes, though — particularly in passing legislation sharply restricting the gifts that Illinois politicians could accept from lobbyists. Illinois has notoriously weak government ethics laws, and the Gift Ban Act was the first major new restriction since the Watergate era.
Obama also helped set up Illinois’ “KidCare” program that provided health care to children in families that did not qualify for Medicaid.
John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said Obama’s work helped make the program more consumer-friendly. He also said Obama was often willing to give up credit for the legislation if that helped win Republican support.
“It tells you something that as a relatively junior member in the minority party, he was an important negotiator,” Bouman said.
When Democrats gained a majority in the Senate, Obama’s political mentor, Senate President Emil Jones, gave him high-profile assignments, including two contentious issues involving police — videotaped interrogations and racial profiling.
Police weren’t happy about recording their interrogations of murder suspects or having to study racial bias in traffic stops. Initially, they opposed both pieces of legislation.
But Obama made clear that something was going to pass with or without their support. Ultimately, police groups endorsed both bills and they won unanimous approval in the Senate.
Obama was generally regarded as an effective and practical, although decidedly liberal, state lawmaker. One of his Republican colleagues was so wowed that he has appeared in an Obama campaign ad, but others aren’t impressed by his legislative record.
“I would say it was run of the mill, honestly,” said Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, who entered the legislature at the same time Obama did.
Obama was a part-time state senator in that he served in the Illinois legislature at the same time he practiced law. He became a state lawmaker in 1997, four years ahead of Hillary Clinton’s entrance into elected office, as U.S. senator.
When Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, he said he wished to get things done rather than grab headlines, and cited Hillary Clinton as the sort of workhorse he wanted to be.
He teamed with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to study the dangers of nuclear proliferation and pass legislation meant to keep nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists.
Obama also joined with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., after Hurricane Katrina to improve oversight of federal spending.
And he shared billing with a Republican presidential hopeful when he joined Arizona Sen. John McCain in sponsoring legislation that called for sharp, mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The effort failed.