NOWist Wendy Schiller is a professor of political science at Brown University
Electing wealthy men to the presidency is not a new phenomenon in American politics. According to a survey conducted by TheAtlantic.com, which measured presidents’ fortunes in 2010 dollars, some of our most revered past presidents have been very rich indeed. For example, George Washington was worth a cool $525 million, Andrew Jackson was worth $119 million, and Teddy Roosevelt was worth $125 million. John F. Kennedy Jr. was the richest president ever with an estimated family fortune of $1 billion. Specifically, among Republican presidents, Herbert Hoover was among the wealthiest with $75 million, followed by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, who have a combined wealth of $43 million. In comparison to past presidents, President Obama came in relatively low on this scale with about $5 million in assets as of 2010.
The difference between Mitt Romney and all the other very wealthy men who have won the presidency is that they did not make their wealth the foundation of their appeal. Well maybe Herbert Hoover did, but the Great Depression put a serious damper on that claim to fame.
George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Teddy Roosevelt had military leadership as the central core of their appeal as possible presidents. Jackson and Roosevelt in particular were adept at translating their personal charisma into reputations as strong populists who cared about the average American. Indeed, Andrew Jackson invited any and all to come to his first inaugural address; by some accounts it was one giant party at the White House. Most Americans would likely have a hard time imagining Romney at a party, much less hosting one; Gingrich on the other hand seems like a guy who would enjoy a party. John F. Kennedy might have suffered the same criticism as Romney, sharing both a privileged upbringing and movie star good looks. But Kennedy had a military record of his own, and he did not run away from his years in government. He also possessed enough charisma to cross the wealth divide and show empathy for the struggles of voters who lived far below his own income level.
Mitt Romney has emphasized his business success at every possible opportunity, from the very first Republican debate to the stomping grounds of South Carolina. But now it appears that all that business knowledge was great for Romney and made him a much richer man, but there is scant evidence that he helped average workers along the way - or at least not on purpose. Inadvertent job creation is not exactly a concrete foundation for electoral success.
Mitt Romney’s tax troubles, and his inability to seal the deal for the GOP nomination, in part stems from his conscious choice to run away from his record as governor of Massachusetts in order to get through the GOP primaries and win the nomination. By running against government in the primaries, Romney has downplayed the part of his resume – executive government experience– that might have been a strong weapon in his electoral arsenal in the general election. By focusing only on a single dimension of his life experiences, he has limited the electoral conversation to the one thing he loathes talking about – money.