Comparing McCain’s and Obama’s experience

Don’t forget to see today’s post, which continues this one

Barack Obama served 143 days in the senate and no days in the military before he began his run for president. John McCain served 26 years in the senate and 22 years in the military before he began his campaign. (These numbers are from Roger Kimball’s blog.)

There are some immediate problems with these numbers. The “143 days” came about this way

From the time Barack Obama was sworn in as a United States 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.

The one single Senate committee that he headed never even met — once.

After 143 days of work experience, Obama believed he was ready to be Commander In Chief, Leader of the Free World, and fill the shoes of Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan.

But during the 26 years McCain was a senator, the upper house was not in session continually, so to be fair we would have to only count the number of days the senate was actually in session over those years. This is unnecessary, because we all know that government and political business does not stop just because the gavel sounds. Therefore, we should give Obama, just as we are giving McCain, full credit for his time in service, which is to say 3.5 years since his swearing in as a senator in January of 2005. He still gets 0 years (or days) for military service. We also have to, since we gave it to Obama, award McCain his extra half year for the first part of 2008.

Let’s put that in table form for easier comparison:

Obama McCain
Senate 3.5 26.5
Military 0 22
Total 3.5 48.5

Which is to say, McCain has about 14 times as much experience as Obama. However, this still isn’t an entirely fair comparison because McCain, who is 26 years older than Obama, has had a greater chance of gaining time on the job. To make the match up commensurable, we have to adjust for age.

Obama has had about 26 years opportunity to gain career knowledge (we don’t count the first 20 years of life for either man). McCain has had 50, or about twice as much time. So let’s redo the table dividing by the total amount of time available, which gives us the fraction of experience to available time. I’ll then multiply by 100 to turn the number into a percentage. We also have to be careful to note that when McCain was serving as a senator, he obviously could not serve in the military, and vice versa. For example, the amount of time McCain could have served in the senate was 50-22=28 years, of which he spent 26.

Obama McCain
Senate 13.5% 92.9%
Military 0% 91.7%
Total 13.5% 96%

The conclusion is that McCain spent nearly all his time in direct training for the position of Commander in Chief, and Obama has spent about a little less than one-seventh of his.

You could argue for the inclusion of Obama’s time spent in other activities, such as the 3.5 years when he served on the eight-person Chicago-based Woods Fund “Poverty” Board with terrorist bomber William Ayers (whose reward for calling for the killing of his fellow Americans was to be made distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago). But most people aren’t anxious to bring attention to this service. However, in the spirit of generosity, let’s award him the full time. That ups Obama’s experience percentage to 27%.

Also, Obama served on the Illinois state legislature, which affirmatively counts as government experience. He served 7 years there, but that time overlapped entirely the time he spent sitting next to, but certainly never approving of or chatting with, radical leftist Ayers. The final table is (remembering again, that when Obama was in the State house, he could not be in the senate, etc.):

Obama McCain
Local 31% 0%
Senate 18.4% 92.9%
Military 0% 91.7%
Total 40% 96%

Thus, even in a generous counting, McCain still has more than twice as much experience as Obama.

This analysis assumes that any government service counts for gaining experience to the position of Commander in Chief, but surely direct military experience should be weighted at least slightly higher. I do not attempt such calculations.

Update. Thanks to LarryA who notes “Senator McCain was sworn into the Senate for the first time on Jan 6, 1987, 21.6 years ago, not 26.5 years ago as stated in the article. He was elected to the House four years before that, but the article is comparing Senate experience.” So the tables above should be changed from “Senate” to “Congress”.


  1. Commander-in-chief of the military is only one part of the president’s job. I would argue that it’s not even the most important (or at least that it shouldn’t be). I’m no fan of Obama, and I don’t doubt that McCain would come out on top if the experience tally emphasized the traditional presidential job description. It’s just a bit frustrating to see the fetishization of the military role of the president continue unabated for so long. Recall that it’s supposed to be Congress’ responsibility to declare war.

  2. Agree with noahpoah – and I would generalize his comment beyond just military experience to say that it’s frustrating to see “experience in general” fetishized in this way. That’s not, of course, to say that political experience isn’t important – just to say that it’s one of many factors in considering a candidate. Obama clearly loses on this count, no matter how you spend your numbers, so to get my vote he’ll have to try to make up for it on other grounds – like, say, by emphasizing his youth, health, speaking and negotiating abilities and offering a really damn good platform. I’m with him on youth and health, speaking and negotiating abilities, but what little of his platform he’s exposed to the public so far pretty much disqualifies him from getting my vote worse than his studied lack of experience ever could.

    I would also like to point out that it’s a bit silly to worrry about being “fair” to Obama concerning his youth. Deciding which guy to vote for in a race is a bottom-line sort of thing. We the voters vote in OUR interests – and if Obama has a handicap against McCain on experiential grounds because he’s younger, then it’s HIS responsibility to try to make up for it in other ways – say, by, oh, I dunno, actually offering a platform that spells “change” rather than just “1970s redux” maybe? But I digress…

  3. Joy


    Do you think that it is befitting for a young man with zilch knowledge/experience of military matters to run a nation that would leave him in direct control of the military machine? Would you put a novice in charge of a gun shop? Put another way, if you had to interview rather than vote wouldn’t military experience be vital? Obama wouldn’t get a first interview!
    You may not like the thought of military action but it is a reality and there’s always the chance that someone else may bring their military to you rather than, as has been the case in recent history, the other way round. It is a necessity not a luxury if you want to remain “the land of the free”.

    I would not like to see how Obama would fair if he had to make strategic military decisions against the Russians for example. I am surprised that this needs spelling out. Diplomacy is not always an option. A nation needs to have the best man and be seen by other nations to have the best man at the helm. This is not the same as saying that the man needs to be a warmonger.

  4. tesla

    Did anyone hear Obama’s initial response to the Russian invasion of Georgia?

    Putin would eat him up.

  5. Briggs


    Noahpoah brings up a good point which has rarely been quantified: how much of a President’s job is spent in being Commander in Chief?

    (I think he might eventually regret the word “fetishization”, but we all use words all little too hurridly on the internet.)

    Anyway, I’m going to answer this question—well, try and start to answer this question—tomorrow morning. I’m preparing a graph now. Stay tuned for now…

  6. Joy

    How often is a resuscitation trolley used? Or a fire escape? Does this mean they are superfluous?

  7. MDM

    I’d like to hear a former (or current) U.S. president opine on qualifications for the job. As if the rest of us know what we’re talking about!

  8. Doubter

    This may be good politics, but it’s not very good statistics.

    Everyone has heard the joke that “ten years of experience” really means one year of experience repeated ten times.

    Experience is an opportunity to learn. What you actually learn may differ.
    Say there is a factor called learning-ability, possibly related to intelligence,
    then multiply that by years of experience to get what you’ve learned.
    And then subtract something for what you’ve forgotten.
    Compare the outputs, not the inputs.

    Run this analysis again and include all the post-WW2 presidents, including some sort of mental ability factor.

  9. It would be interesting to compare another candidate, someone like Miley Cyrus.

    My thought would be that comparing relative levels of experience between Biden, Obama, McCain and the VP Player To Be Named Later (this Week), as well as Ms Cyrus, Obama would be closer to Ms Cyrus than the mean.

    It does, of course, depend on the scale.

    Love the site.

  10. Doubter

    On further thought, experience is probably logarithmic.

    What experience would be relevant to this job? Does being a senator add anything to your CV? Military experience might, if you were high enough up the ladder/chain. Being a CEO would… Cindy McCain might be the most qualified 🙂
    Does being an actor help? It worked for Reagan. Arnie didn’t have much political experience and he’s doing okay.

    If facing Putin is the big test, I propose to measure each candidate’s abilities by a mental triathlon: checkers, chess, and go. That would say something about their strategic ability. Besides commanding an army, the president is going to have a big effect on climate change decisions. Neither candidate seems to be ready for that.

  11. Briggs


    I agree with you: it’s not great statistics. These sort of one-number summaries are crude at best.

    However, in this case not too crude. Both Obama and McCain have similar legislative experience. Neither was in charge of a company, for example; neither are financial tycoons. So assuming the intelligence and adaptability is similar between the two men—and there is no evidence to suggest it is radically unbalanced—then McCain has more proportional experience. And Obama still has no relevant military experience whatsoever.

    Including, as you suggest, some measure of “leadership intelligence” would be just the thing. Is it possible for anybody to quantify this?

    Also, being an actor probably doesn’t help much. But being governor seems to. It worked for Reagan.

    Anyway, MDM makes the best point. Let’s hear from the real experts!

  12. In intelligence terms, it would be hard to argue that there was a more intelligent, learned President in the 20th Century than Woodrow Wilson. He is still the only PhD to have served as President, and a political science PhD at that. He was the president of Princeton University, then Governor of New Jersey, then United States President.

    He was also, to my anti-authoritarian view, a truly horrible President. The attacks on civil liberties that the current political left decries are mere knuckle-cracking before the beat-down that Wilson’s administration gave the Bill of Rights during World War I. The idea of a ‘League of Nations’ can be charitably described as before its time, though the modern history of the UN would suggest that it was eventually unworkable in any event. He seems to have embraced concept over outcome, which is all too common in some quarters today, and laid the groundwork (if you believe Jonah Goldberg) for the more authoritarian aspects of FDR’s New Deal.

    The second most intellectually-gifted President of the 20th Century was probably none other than William Jefferson Clinton. Not only does he have a tremendous grasp of the intricacies of policy, but he’s a communicator on par with Reagan. Unfortunately, his intellect was accompanied by personal issues that will probably drop him out of the ranks of ‘great’ Presidents.

    The most effective President of the 20th Century, both in length of service and in lasting impact, was FDR. Regarding FDR, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “A third-rate intellect. But a First-rate personality!” Not a ringing endorsement of intellectual rigor, and yet he served longer than any other President and his policies are largely still with us today.

    In terms of leadership ability, it’s hard to put the bar higher than Eisenhower, who had executive experience as Allied Supreme Commander than no post-war President or candidate will likely match. I wonder which job he found harder. He was President when he was older, but I imagine his WW II job was harder in many ways. The largest unit McCain commanded was a training squadron, a pittance by comparison.

    Too much can be made of intelligence when considering Presidential qualification. Based on his admission to Annapolis and qualification for naval aviator training I would imagine that McCain is at least a couple of SD above the mean on standardized intelligence testing — navigating on instruments over water at night does not seem like a skill for an ‘average’ intellect, particularly not in Uncle Sam’s hardware. Barack Obama is at least equally, if not more, intellectually gifted. And yet, having mental horsepower to spare didn’t help Clinton, and it didn’t help Wilson.

    I don’t think you can use a stand-in for intelligence to determine anything with regard to future Presidential performance. When it comes to experience, about all you can hope is that by having more of it a President will be able to detect a familiar pattern in events, and remember to not make the mistake they did the last time that pattern presented itself. Being human, the choice often seems to be to either repeat our mistakes expecting a better outcome, or go on to make entirely new mistakes.

  13. Nobless Oblige

    Unfortunately experience does count, and history proves it. The pattern tis that new inepxerienced presidents tend to make early mistakes, though they learn quickly. JFK was relatively inexperienced when he became president — though he had more than Obama — and he fell victim to the bay of Pigs fiasco, and Krushchev had hin for breakfast at Vienna. This led to the Soviet’s mistaken perception of a weak American president, and the near nuclear war over Cuban missiles. Other examples abound. Even Clinton blundered into the gay military debacle first thing, and Hillary had her medical plan blow up early on.

    Fetish or no. Having an inexperienced, clueless president puts us all at risk.


  14. Luis Dias

    This is numerology, mr Briggs and you know it. I don’t have any problem whatsover for anyone thinking that his own preferred candidate has it better than the other, but this kind of analysis is blank on itself. Experience as you defined tells nothing other than “time spent at doing something in such place”, without mentioned what that “something” is really about. There’s a reason why companies often prefer young passionate and hopeful people rather than old, grumpy and obsolete-minded people for jobs. Yeah, I just made an hyperbole, but then again, so did you.

  15. Briggs

    Luis, It’s a little numerological, I’ll agree. This raw comparison probably doesn’t mean much at all. The part that is right is that you have to adjust experience by age, which is what I attempted to do crudely.

    You’re right about companies hiring young, dynamic people in preference to old, cranky folks. But they don’t put them in charge.

    Darren, thanks for that analysis. I agree that the presence of a PhD might even be a detriment to its holder (see the earlier post on the BS Octopus). The intelligence required to memorize and argue shades of gray is not the same as the intelligence needed to lead.

    If other readers haven’t yet seen Darren’s site like me before this morning, it’s worth a visit (click on his name).

  16. LarryA

    According to his website (, Senator McCain was sworn into the Senate for the first time on Jan 6, 1987, 21.6 years ago, not 26.5 years ago as stated in the article. He was elected to the House four years before that, but the article is comparing Senate experience.

    Whether the comparison is meaningful or not, I don’t know. But I do know that it is factually in accurate.

  17. Briggs


    Thanks very much. Being accurate is the most important thing. I’ll make an update above.

  18. Patrick Hadley

    So according to this fascinating theory the best choice for President on the basis of experience would by Senator Robert Byrd, who has twice as much experience as John McCain.

    According to the data I have seen only 3% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are over 70, I wonder how many of them were appointed at the age of 72?

  19. How many Fortune 500 companies would take Warren Buffett if he offered to work for them?

    Jack Welch was 66 when he retired from GE. Do you think GE stockholders would have preferred he stay on as CEO over the young and spry Jeff Immelt? Immelt was a wunderkind at GE Healthcare, but his tenure as CEO has been somewhat troubled, even before Chris Matthews’ leg began to twitch.

  20. Briggs

    Patty boy,

    You might be on to something. Byrd is currently President pro tempore of the United States Senate, which makes him third in line for the top slot if Bush and Cheney have some sort of hunting accident.

    Democrat and Ku Klux Klan member Byrd has served in the senate about 49.6 years. He’s 89, so he had 69 available years to gain government experience, giving him an experience score of just under 56%.

    So McCain still beats him on my theory. Plus, I think we can agree that his KKK appearance should knock some experience points off.

  21. Beau

    I have not read much at this web site, so admit to not having a good feel for its overall tenor and aims. This disclosed, I wonder if this kind of essay is helpful for a site that may at other times make serious stabs at offering enlightenment via statistical analyses on more data meaningful and complex topics?
    To my mind, statisticians are generally well-served to be judiciously discreet by eschewing disclosure of personal value judgments and opinions, pertaining to politics or religious beliefs. Musings about politics can undermine credibility among a broad spectrum of potential readers about topics that may be more amenable to statistical interpretations. Not to aim to be unkind or to deny the right to personal expression, just to offer the caution.

  22. skh.pcola

    Huh. Statisticians are sterile intellects without opinions about anything else, save statistics. Who knew?

    Does AlGore experience a diminution of status because he regularly opines and advocates for the myth of catastrophic AGW, although he is not a pedigreed “climatologist”?

    Do Charlie Sheen, Streisand, Clooney, and the entirety of the entertainment monolith invite your censure because they are almost all high-school or college drop outs who ad nauseum propound idiotic, liberal (but I repeat myself) political points of view, although they are not Political Science experts (or even informed commentators on same)?

    Does Obama lose any respect from you when he thumps his plank about economic issues, although he is a Marxist who couldn’t compose a successful economic program if his life depended on it?

    I suspect none of the above metaphorical scenarios would provoke any opposition from those who are ideologically biased in favor of socialist liberals. Simply because you disagree with Mr. Briggs vis-a-vis his political opinions doesn’t mean that his statistical analyses are invalid. Any sentient individual would be able to separate the two subjects.

    I hope the tangential ad hominems are safe. Poseurs who make flaccid attempts to perpetrate the liberal tactic of shouting down the dissenting opinion, frankly, piss me off. You can couch your grumbles in whatever sesquipedalian manner that you choose, but you are still a whiner.

    And further, if you think that personal biases and opinions do not enter into academic or scholarly production, you are severely naive. Witness the lack of science in any discussion of Glowball Worming and you have proof that your stab at ideological purity, above, is Epic Fail.

  23. Briggs


    Your point is well taken. But I should tell you it isn’t all fun and games around here. Sometimes we tackle some very serious subjects.

    Like who is the mysterious Hal?

  24. Ointment Fly

    So has anyone figured out how many actual days in session McCain has served of his 21 years in the Senate? And what is that percentage compared to Obama? Does it truly even matter? Are Senators NOT working when they are not in session? Do they revert to fabulous perpetual vacations, cease thinking about the important matters affecting their constituents, doff their Senators’ hats and go tribal?

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