Hillary Clinton: Is She Rich Enough To Be President?

Democratic Party activists and leading pundits have of late begun speculating whether Hillary Clinton’s wealth might prove to be an obstacle to her presidential aspirations. But history suggests their concerns are misplaced. The problem is not that Hillary’s too rich. It’s that she’s not rich enough – at least not rich enough to achieve presidential greatness!

As Clinton understands, a major drawback to being the front-runner for your party’s presidential nomination, with no clear rivals in sight, is that the media has no one else to talk about. Journalists, of course, view their mission as speaking truth to power and, not incidentally, they also have a strong preference for a competitive presidential nominating race. For this reason, they have spent considerable time of late, aided by issue activists and other party players, probing for weaknesses in Clinton’s candidacy. This is part of the candidate vetting process that Marty Cohen et al describe in their The Party Decides.  Part of that vetting involves testing possible negative campaign frames to see which ones might have legs on the campaign trail. So far the vetters have discussed Benghazi against the backdrop of Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, her evolving views on gay marriage and, most recently, her personal wealth. The wealth issue was triggered by Clinton’s statement, at the start of her recent book tour, that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. Critics immediately pounced, noting that given her $200,000 speaking fees and current net worth hovering at an estimated $15 million,  the comments made her seem out of touch with ordinary Americans. More enticing still, pundits speculated that her wealth made her vulnerable to a challenge from a populist candidate (Elizabeth Warren, anyone?) who was not perceived to be so closely tied to Wall St. and the “1 percent”. (See also here and here.)

What are we to make of this effort to characterize Hillary as the poor-woman’s Mitt Romney – a plutocrat out of touch with the average American? History suggests Hillary’s critics are drawing the wrong lesson. Let’s face it – to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway (perhaps apocryphally) paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Presidents are different from you and me. They have more money.” Lots more, in fact. You don’t find very many presidents who were not men of considerable means when they took office.

Interestingly, the wealthier the President, the more likely he (someday she) will be considered one of the greater presidents, based on evaluations by historians and political scientists. (In previous posts I’ve discussed some of the problems with presidential rankings, so I won’t belabor the point here.) Consider the presidents typically ranked as the nation’s greatest: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. With the exception of Lincoln (and who knows where he would be ranked had he served out his second term) all took office possessing great personal wealth – in fact, they are among the wealthiest of all the presidents. Washington ranks second in net worth, just behind JFK. Jefferson is third (although he was mired in debt in his post-presidential years), and TR fourth. Even FDR, the poorest among them at a wealth ranking of only nine (again, excluding Lincoln) based on an estimated net worth in current dollars of $60 million, has 4 times Clinton’s fortune.  All told, at least 17 presidents outrank Hillary in personal wealth and these include some of the highest ranked presidents, including Jackson (ranked 8), Kennedy (11), Adams (12), Madison (13), LBJ (14) and Monroe (15). Indeed, if you control for the usual suspects (death in office, scandal, whether the nation is at war, and if the president won reelection), wealth is a statistically significant predictor of a president’s historical ranking (although I wouldn’t put too much stock in the coefficient)!

Now, to anticipate the expressions of outrage that are sure to flow into my comments section, I am in fact deeply skeptical that there’s any direct link between wealth and presidential greatness, regression results notwithstanding (although I don’t rule out the possibility!) My point is simply that there’s nothing in the historical record that says being wealthy should disqualify you from holding the nation’s highest office.

Indeed, I think that rather than shy away from publicizing her wealth, Hillary should embrace it. Think of the possible slogans!

Hillary Clinton. She’s not a….er…..witch. She’s just rich.

But is she rich enough to be in the “10 percent” of great presidents?

[Update: 12:08.  And now the New York Times piles on by analyzing Chelsea’s speaking fees!]

Meanwhile, Mad magazine has some fun at Hillary’s expense (hat tip to Shelly Sloan):

broke girl

 

4 comments

  1. To start with a little nitpick: the estimate that makes JFK the wealthiest president is based on the estimated value of the entire estate Joseph Kennedy left his children. But Joe survived Jack, so Jack never inherited it. Had he survived his father, he would have shared in it with his siblings. Estimates that take this into account place him lower, but still third wealthiest behind Washington and Jefferson.

    I’m not sure if data exists on this matter, but it would be much more interesting to compare presidents’ wealth on the value upon assuming office, or the mean wealth possessed over a number of years prior to that (wealth fluctuated mightily in the 19th century). Yes, Clinton is now a wealthy president, but he gathered most of his wealth after – and more importantly, because of – his presidency. Thus, his wealth cannot have been a driving factor behind his perceived success as a president – although his financial windfall may have resulted from the perception of being an above average president.

    There is another issue that makes wealth attained after the presidency a poor comparable. To the limited extent of my understanding, until the early twentieth century, it was generally unacceptable for presidents to leverage their public fame into large earnings and presidents returned to their estates or business holdings, or resumed the private practices or public offices they had served in before their presidency. Thus, the likes of Clinton, Ford an Nixon – who came into office with little or no wealth by presidential standards – had access to a source of income that Andrew Benjamin Harrison, Hayes and Andrew Johnson (and all the presidents who died in office) did not.

    I do question the relationship between wealth and ranking more generally, though. It appears to me that the wealth-vs.-perceived-success-in-office picture is distorted by two secondary effects. Firstly: looking at wikipedia’s aggregate of presidential rankings, one notices that each of the first 8 presidents ranks above average in both quality and in wealth. Some of these probably owe at least part of their acclaim to achievement outside of the office, contribution to the DoI or the drafting of the constitution.

    But secondly, one must also bear in mind that these presidents were all elected at a time when significant property qualifications were tied to the franchise. And that’s just for white men. Except for a few brief years in New Jersey, women couldn’t vote. Nearly all Americans of african descent couldn’t vote. Nearly all Americans of Native descent, who still made up a significant share of the inhabitants of the United States at the time, couldn’t vote. Many immigrant citizens couldn’t vote. Initially, most states didn’t hold presidential elections at all, and had the state legislature appoint electors instead. Thus, Adams sr. – who ranks well above average overall but is ‘poorest’ among his contemporaries – was probably much nearer in wealth to his electorate than Bush sr. (both ~$20m) nearly 200 years later. And much more in touch with it, too. Unsurprisingly then, over half of these presidents were landed gentry who lived off the income generated by the plantations they owned.

    The converse has happened, too. At the end of property qualifications, starting with Buchanan and ending with Benjamin Harrison, a series of presidents came to office who were decidedly middle class in their roots, never earned $100K per evening after their presidency and all firmly rank among the bottom third for wealth. And except Lincoln, all are perceived as below-average presidents. One may ask though, whether a country can elect a generation of poor presidents or whether the evaluation of presidents reflects the problems (polarization, corruption, clientelism, income inequality – sounds familiar?) endemic to a disappointing era in US politics more generally.

    Together, these two sets of presidents make up over a 3rd of the total and both sets are sufficiently off-average to significantly contribute to the significance of the wealth-vs.-ranking coefficient. Some of this is explained by the controlled variables mentioned, no doubt. But given that both groups are bunched together within a particular timeframe, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the periodical bias in both presidential wealth and ranking is caused by separate, contemporary factors: perception of era and its importance to US history -vs- evolution of franchise rights. If that suspicion proves correct and can be controlled for, the relationship between wealth and ranking probably breaks down.

  2. Peter,

    As you astutely point out (and as I’ve discussed elsewhere particularly when it comes to presidential rankings) there are a host of problems with both sets of data dealing with presidential wealth and historical rankings. And, as I noted in my post, I have little confidence that there’s any direct positive relationship between the two. My point was simply to make a point that all this talk about Clinton’s wealth seems a tad bit misplaced, given that very very wealthy people have served very very effectively as president.

  3. Matt:

    Why all the talk about Hillary? That’s a lifetime (in politics) away.

    Does anyone realize that there is an election in approximately 100 days that could change this presidency and perhaps the next one or two?

    We are all waiting for a state by state analysis of those Senate seats in play (+ or – 10). Let’s get to it.

  4. Shelly,

    I’m waiting on the Senate projections until most of the primary races are settled but don’t worry – they will be coming!

    – Matt

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