Fact Check

Obama Health Care

E-mail warns of health issues associated with the Obama-Biden ticket.

Published Sep 22, 2008

Claim:   E-mail warns of health issues associated with the Obama-Biden ticket.

Status:   Partly true.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, September 2008]

Much is made of McCain's age. Has anyone brought up the fact that:

Obama smokes and both of his parents died at an early age.

Plus Biden has had two brain aneurysms which could have killed him.

If they both died while in office that would leave Nancy Pelosi as president.

I can't think of a better reason to vote for McCain & Palin.

Origins:   The 2008 U.S. presidential election features a candidate (Senator John McCain) who, if elected, would be the oldest person ever to assume the office of President of the United States and would reach the life expectancy for white males in the U.S. before the end of his first term. Accordingly, this election cycle has brought greater focus to the issue of vice-presidential candidates as potential presidents themselves rather than merely as political figureheads chosen to bring "balance" to their parties' tickets.

The item quoted above is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to the issues that have been raised about John McCain's age and the political experience (or lack thereof) possessed by his vice-presidential candidate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin — a political jab positing that both members of the Democratic ticket (senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden) themselves have health issues in their backgrounds that should give voters reason for pause.

However, although the information provided might be considered true in a literal sense, it might also be considered misleading in an overall sense because it includes a few selected facts while omitting some much more significant ones.

It is true that Barack Obama's father and mother died at relatively young ages (46 and 52, respectively), but neither of those deaths is really predictive of a significantly shortened life span for Barack Obama: His father died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident, a factor that has no genetic component whatsoever, and his mother died of ovarian/uterine cancer, a condition that is quite unlikely to afflict Barack Obama. Although any form of cancer in a family can be a significant data point in a person's medical history, one also has to consider that all four of Barack Obama's grandparents — two of whom are still alive — lived into their mid-70s or longer (two of them having survived to their mid-80s), so from an actuarial standpoint there is little reason to expect that 47-year-old Barack Obama would succumb to a fatal or incapacitating illness within the next four (or eight) years.

(Barack Obama has a background as a smoker — he said he quit before the current presidential campaign but occasionally "falls off the wagon" — which is another health issue, but the potential long-term health risks for former smokers are difficult to assess. John McCain was also reportedly a former two-pack-a-day smoker for many years before he gave up the habit around 1980.)

Barack Obama's running mate, 65-year-old Senator Joe Biden, twice underwent surgeries in 1988 to correct brain aneurysms that were commonly described as "near-fatal," a factor that might legitimately raise concerns about whether he will remain sufficiently healthy to hold office for the next several years. However, the specter that his medical history might potentially elevate Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to the presidency is an exceedingly far-fetched one: Although Rep. Pelosi, due to her position as Speaker of the House, would be next in line for the presidency after the vice-president under the
Presidential Succession Act of 1947, she would assume that position only under the unprecedented and highly unlikely circumstance of the president and vice-president both dying or becoming incapacitated by illness at the same time. Should only one of them be struck down, under the terms of the 25th Amendment, the other would appoint a new vice-president (subject to the approval of Congress), while Rep. Pelosi would remain as Speaker of the House. Even if the other original officeholder were subsequently struck down, that circumstance would result in yet another vice-presidential appointment, not in the Speaker of the House's assuming the presidency. (In other words, even if Barack Obama and Joe Biden both succumbed to illness while in office, unless they did so at the very same time, the worst-case scenario is that the United States would end up with both a president and a vice-president who were appointed rather than elected, but neither of them would necessarily be Nancy Pelosi.)

Of course, some tragic event other than medical illness (e.g., accident, terrorist attack, assassination) could strike the president and vice-president simultaneously and thereby place the Speaker of the House in the White House, but that possibility exists right now and will continue to exist no matter which party wins the next election. There are also no guarantees that Rep. Pelosi will be Speaker of the House for the next several years, since the person who holds that position is selected by whichever party holds a majority of seats in the House, and the composition of that body changes every two years.

Last updated:   30 September 2008


David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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