Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Sabrina  Eaton
By Sabrina Eaton April 27, 2012

Samuel 'Joe the Plumber' Wurzelbacher says Barack Obama's parents were communists

Ohio congressional candidate Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher first gained national attention after querying presidential candidate Barack Obama’s about tax policy during a televised 2008 campaign appearance in the Toledo area.

As the GOP nominee to challenge Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the 2012 election, Wurzelbacher recently made news again when the Christian Broadcasting Network website published a letter he wrote about Obama’s religious faith as well as his own Christian beliefs. Wurzelbacher told the website he plans to distribute the letter titled: ‘I’m Blessed to be a Christian," to churches during his upcoming congressional campaign.

Wurzelbacher’s letter doesn’t address Kaptur. It mostly dwells on Obama. Wurzelbacher says he believes Obama is a Christian, and it’s not Christian for people to say otherwise.

Wurzelbacher’s letter also provided a colorful rendition of Obama’s background:

"Imagine being the child of a mixed-race marriage - especially in the turbulent 60’s and free-wheeling 70’s," his letter said. "And when you throw in that dad was a Muslim and mom an atheist - you know it could not have been easy - and they were communists for crying out loud!"

Communists? That got PolitiFact Ohio’s attention. We thought we’d check out Wurzelbacher’s claim.

When asked for evidence that Obama’s parents were communists, Wurzelbacher’s campaign spokesman Reece Collins supplied a 2007 Chicago Tribune article about Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The article stated that Dunham attended a Washington state high school where a teacher asked students to read "The Communist Manifesto" and the school board chairman told the House Un-American Activities Subcommittee that he had been a communist Party member. A classmate of Dunham’s called her "a fellow traveler," and claimed "We were liberals before we knew what liberals were."

The Merriam Webster dictionary says the term "fellow traveler" describes someone who "sympathizes with and often furthers the ideals and program of an organized group (as the Communist Party) without membership in the group or regular participation in its activities." While the expression often describes people with communist leanings, Dunham’s classmate appears to apply it towards her liberal sympathies. Nor does graduating from a high school where students read the "TheCommunist Manifesto" and a school board member was a Communist party member mean that Dunham herself was a communist, as Wurzelbacher alleges.

Claims that Obama’s estranged father was a communist are more widespread on conservative websites. Collins forwarded a profile of Obama from DiscoverLinks which describes the senior Obama as "a communist who had left his rural Luo-speaking village and his own Muslim father to become an agnostic and study economics abroad." Several editorials in the conservative Investor’s Business Daily also call Obama’s father a "communist."

Many claims that the senior Obama was a communist derive from a 1965 article he authored in East Africa Journal. The article titled "Problems Facing Our Socialism," critiques an earlier economic paper released by Kenya’s government. In it, the elder Obama argues for removing "the disparities in our country such as the concentration of economic power in Asian and European hands while not destroying what has already been achieved and at the same time assimilating these groups to build one country."

"What is more important is to find means by which we can redistribute our economic gains to the benefit of all and at the same time be able to channel some of these gains to future production," Obama’s father wrote. "This is the government’s obligation: it should have come out with a plan in the paper to achieve this."

When Politico tracked down the 1965 paper before the last presidential election, it sought an evaluation from Kenya expert Raymond Omwami, an economist who was a visiting UCLA professor. Omwami told Politico that the elder Obama didn’t endorse radical politics, but instead criticized the policies of Kenya’s Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, "which applied African socialism principles to the country’s ongoing political upheaval." Omwami said Obama’s paper responded to a government document that suggested Kenya should concentrate its financial aid in more populous areas in hopes that positive effects would trickle down to smaller villages.

"The critics of this article are making a big mistake," Omwami told Politico. "They are assuming Obama senior is the one who came up with this concept of African socialism, but that’s totally wrong. Based on that, they’re imbuing in him the idea that he himself is a socialist, but he is not."

Omwami told Politico he would instead refer to the elder Obama as "a liberal person who believed in market forces but understood its limitations."  

To settle the question of whether Obama’s parents were communists, we also consulted authors of a pair of books about the president, who have extensively researched the president’s background.

Harvard University historian James T. Kloppenberg, who wrote a 2010 book on Obama’s intellectual roots called "Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition," says he’s confident that Obama’s parents were not communists.

"Obama’s mother was left of center, as was his father," Kloppenberg wrote in an email. "But I found no evidence to indicate that either of them ever affiliated with any Communist movements."

Likewise, Cincinnati native David Mendell, a former Chicago Tribune political writer who authored a biography of Obama titled "Obama: From Promise to Power," also says there’s no evidence to back up Wurzelbacher’s assertion that Obama’s parents were communists.

Mendell calls Obama’s mother "a traditional Adlai Stevenson liberal," and said it’s unlikely that Obama’s largely absent father was a communist because "there aren’t many communist economists."

Mendell said his research didn’t unearth any communist ties to Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, an oil company employee. And Mendell says the maternal grandmother who played a big role in raising Obama, Madelyn Dunham, was a conservative Republican.

"I have never heard him or anyone in his family espouse any kinship with the old Soviet Union," Mendell said of Obama.

The evidence that Wurzelbacher produced doesn’t back his claim. There does not seem to be any proof that Obama’s mother was a communist. Nor does the 1965 paper authored by Obama’s estranged father verify that he was a communist. And authors of books on Obama say there’s no evidence that Obama’s parents were communists.

We give Wurzelbacher’s incendiary statement a False rating

Our Sources

Christian Broadcasting Network, "Only on the Brody File: Joe The Plumber’s Letter: ‘I’m Blessed to be a Christian," April 24, 2012

Emails and telephone conversations with Wurzelbacher spokesman Reece Collins, April 25, 2012

Los Angeles Times, "Barack Obama: Mother not just a girl from Kansas," March 27, 2007

Merriam-Webster online dictionary, definition of "fellow traveler", "Profile of Barack Obama, From Birth Through Election Day 2008," accessed on April 25, 2012

Investor’s Business Daily editorial, "Like Father Like Son," August 19, 2008

Investor’s Business Daily editorial, "If Obama’s Past Isn’t a Concern, Why Cover it Up?" March 14, 2012

Quarterly Journal of Political Science, "Measuring Explicit Political Positions of Media," October 2008

East Africa Journal, "Problems Facing our Socialism by Barak H. Obama," July 1965

Politico, "Long Lost Article by Obama’s Dad Surfaces," April 15, 2008

Emails with historian James Kloppenberg, April 25, 2012

Interview with author David Mendell, April 25, 2012

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Sabrina Eaton

Samuel 'Joe the Plumber' Wurzelbacher says Barack Obama's parents were communists

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up