Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about her new book "Hard Choices" at the George Washington University in Washington on June 13, 2014.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

How Hillary Clinton should talk about wealth

Updated

Hillary Clinton has seemed tone-deaf in recent weeks on the subject of wealth. She’s been pilloried by the right, pressed by the media, and dinged by plenty of Democrats for a couple statements that suggested the former secretary of state was being less-than-upfront about her family’s enormous wealth.

The key to fixing this problem? Maybe it’s taking a page from the playbooks of the last two Democratic presidents – Barack Obama, and Clinton’s husband Bill.

Republicans have seized on Clinton’s recent set of clumsy remarks – that her family was “dead broke” upon leaving the White House, and that she and Bill Clinton aren’t “truly well off” compared to the wealthiest  Americans – to paint her as out of touch with ordinary people. Clinton, whose family is worth tens of millions, has since conceded that the comments were “inartful.” But that’s not stopping her opponents from caricaturing her as the second coming of Mitt Romney. 

Melissa Harris-Perry, 6/29/14, 1:41 PM ET

Hillary Clinton's relatability under question

Hillary Clinton has joined a long list of politicians whose comments on wealth have fallen outside the relatability spectrum. Robert Traynham, Tracy Sefl, Tamara Draut and Dalton Conley discuss with Melissa Harris-Perry.

Even Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri told msnbc last week that Clinton “needs to be comfortable that they’ve made a lot of money.”  She added, “It’s very American, making a lot of money. Many of our modern-day presidents have made a lot of money, so I don’t thinks he needs to be defensive about that,” and suggested Clinton should instead be emphasizing her previous support for policies that have benefited the middle class.

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said Clinton needs to be more “matter of fact” about just how lucky she is. Clinton, she noted, “comes from a place of not having been born with a silver spoon in her mouth and she needs to emphasize that she’s been very blessed and that she’s never forgotten where she came from and has never stopped fighting for everyone else in the country.”

Clinton could learn something from President Obama, who has often owned the fact that he is very well off. Obama came into an office as a best-selling author, and four years later, was challenged by Mitt Romney, whose net worth dwarfed Obama’s. Still, the president spoke in terms that made it seem as if Obama and Romney’s wealth were comparable.

In the first presidential debate of 2012 in which Obama argued for taxing the nation’s wealthiest, he said, “when Governor Romney indicates that he wants to cut taxes and potentially benefit folks like me and him, and to pay for it, we’re having to initiate significant cuts in federal support for education, that makes a difference.”

NewsNation with Tamron Hall, 6/30/14, 11:34 AM ET

Backlash continues for Hillary Clinton

Hillary and Bill Clinton have continued to address questions of their wealth, an issue that could hinder her presidential run. NBC News senior political editor Mark Murray joins Tamron Hall to discuss.

Similarly, in November of that year, when Obama was discussing the Bush tax cuts that were about to expire, Obama said, “I’m not going to ask students and seniors and middle class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me making over $250,000 aren’t asked to pay a dime more in taxes.”

Instead of trying to claim he’s in the same boat as the everyman, Obama acknowledged that he was a very privileged man – but one eager to fight for the average Joe. 

For instance, when he was pushing a jobs bill in Virginia in 2011, Obama put himself in the top 1 or 2% of earners. “We’re going to ask the Senate to pay for it by making sure that folks like me are paying their fair share, and if I’m paying my fair share, then you get a tax cut or a tax break,” he told a crowd at the Greensville County High School in Emporia, Va. “People like me can afford to pay a little bit more. Now understand, we’re talking about the top 1, 2% of people at the very top of the income scales. And we can afford it. We don’t need a tax cut. We didn’t ask for a tax break. You got corporations who are getting special deals on their tax codes. They don’t need a special deal. Let’s give a good deal to hardworking men and women who are out there struggling to make ends meet.”

Bill Clinton – who raised taxes on the wealthy in the 1990s –  has also proven to be more adept at discussing his wealth in comparison to his wife. In 2011, he acknowledged that his taxes were cut in the last decade, which was coupled with a spike in his income. “I believe people like me should pay, not because it’s a bad thing to be successful, but because the country’s made us successful and we’re in the best position to help do something about the debt …” he said.

The former president even went as far as to say he “thanks God” he is able to pay high tax rates during a speech at Georgetown University this spring. Bill Clinton was looking back on his economic policy. “As long as people in the top one to five percent are making the lion’s share – 90% or more – of the money, we ought to pay a lion’s share of taxes for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is.”

The good news for Hillary Clinton is despite her recent stumbles in speaking about wealth, the majority of Americans still believe she can relate to average Americans just as well as other 2016 hopefuls.

According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg survey released Sunday, 55% said they believe Clinton can relate to the problems of everyday citizens. Meanwhile, 37% said Clinton isn’t as relatable as other potential candidates.

President Obama also downplayed the controversy over the weekend, telling ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that “over time, I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference” and that Clinton has been to this “rodeo” plenty times before.

Hillary Clinton and Tax Policy

How Hillary Clinton should talk about wealth

Updated