"Joe the Plumber" aka Joe Wurzelbacher gained attention in the 2008 US presidential campaign between Obama and McCain and passed away recently.

In the original discussion with Obama that shot him to fame, he said:

Joe: ... I work hard. I'm a plumber, I work 10-12 hours a day ...
Obama: ... How long have you been a plumber? How long have you been working? Joe: Fifteen years.

The New York Times reported at the time:

Joe Wurzelbacher was ... thinking about how to buy the plumbing business where he works. ...
Joe the Plumber ... may work in the plumbing business, but he is not a licensed plumber.
Thomas Joseph, the business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, based in Toledo, said Thursday that Wurzelbacher had never held a plumber's license, which is required in Toledo and several surrounding municipalities. He also never completed an apprenticeship and does not belong to the plumber's union, which has endorsed Obama. On Thursday, he acknowledged that he does plumbing work even though he does not have a license.

His family recently said in a GiveSendGo appeal [before his death]:

Joe works as a plumber in Toledo and Katie is a stay-home mother. Joe picked plumbing as his AFSC during his time in the Air Force and has always enjoyed plumbing. ... After leaving the political field, Joe happily went back to plumbing. He truly enjoys working and loves solving all kinds of plumbing problems.

Wurzelbacher appears to have stretched the truth or been misinformed in his initial Obama encounter. (He was not a licensed plumber. He lived in a modest house and owed $1100 in taxes, yet he was "getting ready to buy a company that makes about $250,000, $270-$280,000 a year." which seems inconsistent.)

Did Joe perform plumbing work after he left the Air Force, prior to 2008?

  • 7
    My best guess is that he really did small, unlicensed plumbing jobs, using what he learned in the air force. But I think his hands-on experience with plumbing is nowhere near the "10-12 hours a day" he reported, surely not for 15 years. I don't think you can do that many jobs and never have an error that requires you to call your business insurance (which you don't have because you're unlicensed). The risk of a job going bad would also increase with the complexity of the job. Aug 28, 2023 at 22:44
  • 1
    If Joe was not a licensed plumber, he might have got small time business but how could he have been "working in a plumbing business" (that he was thinking of buying), unless it wasn't as a plumber? Aug 28, 2023 at 23:25
  • The second-last paragraph throws in multiple-intent questions, you should either delete it or totally restate the question. Do you want answers purely to verify if he was simply working that job fulltime, or to estimate whether his apparent income would actually allow him to buy the company? These are multiple questions and very different.
    – smci
    Aug 30, 2023 at 23:58

1 Answer 1



The New York Times reported on Wurzelbacher's death.

It reinforced that he was not a licensed plumber but explained:

[...] he could work in Toledo only for someone with a master’s license or in outlying areas [...]

It further explained:

After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he was trained in plumbing. He was discharged in 1996, and worked as a plumber’s assistant as well as for a telecommunications company.

The role of plumber's assistant is consistent with not having a license, working in plumbing, and calling yourself a "plumber" in public as a short-hand. It isn't inconsistent with intending to buy a plumbing business that hired licensed plumbers, intending to obtain a plumber's license. Nor is owing a small amount of back-taxes inconsistent with wanting to buy a business.

  • 6
    "It isn't inconsistent with intending to buy a plumbing business" - It is in that it probably doesn't provide remotely enough income to do that. Not without a different income source, which is very difficult if you're really spending 10-12 hours a day on the plumbing stuff.
    – aroth
    Aug 30, 2023 at 3:05
  • 4
    I believe he was a plumber's assistant but I don't believe for a second he could have afforded a company that profitable. Why invest in stocks when you can put maybe $200k (realistic max a plumber's assistant could save) into an already profitable company and double it in 2 years? Why hasn't Wall Street figured this out? Aug 30, 2023 at 4:19
  • 15
    @aroth: He could have savings (including payouts from Air Force and inheritances), he could borrow with the business as collateral, he could have family support, he could simply have goals outside of his means. I don't pretend to know.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 30, 2023 at 4:20
  • 7
    @SubatomicTripod: So many assumptions.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 30, 2023 at 4:20
  • 9
    @aroth He said he was "thinking about how to buy the business" not "intending to buy the business." These are not the same thing. I spend quite a lot of time (perhaps more than I should) thinking about how to do things that I have no reasonable expectation of ever doing. For example, right now I'm working on a plan to redevelop a massive parking garage at a local transit station into mixed use housing, even though I am several orders of magnitude short on money to purchase the property and I doubt the agency would sell even if I had the funds to buy it. Aug 30, 2023 at 15:31

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