The last time Hillary Clinton ran for president, questions about her wealth dogged her campaign until its waning days, when she finally relented to pressure to release her tax returns not long before conceding the nomination to Barack Obama. “It’s a pretty inconvenient time for this to come out,” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick commented on the occasion.
Perhaps now, a year and half before the Iowa caucuses, is a more convenient time, but Republicans hope to keep the likely Democratic front-runner’s wealth on the table as long as possible.
“Every election cycle the Democrats play the class warfare card to gin up their base and use personal success to question the character of Republican candidates,” said Ryan Williams, who had to defend Mitt Romney from jabs at his wealth day after day as a campaign spokesman in 2012. “It is amusing to watch the same people who smeared Governor Romney’s hard work and accomplished private-sector career desperately spin for Hillary and whine about she has a right to make a living without being attacked. There is no question that this is poetic justice.”
But just how wealthy is Clinton in the grand scheme of American presidents? While calculations are inherently gauzy and come with plenty of caveats, it’s reasonable to estimate that Clinton would enter the White House in around the 80th percentile in historical Oval Office wealth, meaning she’d be worth more than close to four out of five of her predecessors. That’s a big jump from her husband, who was among the least wealthy men to assume the office, but richer than Obama.
Clinton’s most recent personal financial disclosure form, filed as she was leaving her post at the State Department, shows that she and her husband held assets worth between about $5.2 and $25.5 million in 2012 (the forms require only broad ranges of assets).
That number has surely grown in the past year, as Clinton likely earned millions in a book advance for her new memoir, and she and her husband can both collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single speech. And that doesn’t include their two multimillion-dollar homes, which are held in trusts for tax reasons.
No matter where their actual worth falls on that spectrum, it’s a lot of money by anyone’s standard (their income probably puts them in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent), but still it’s nowhere near the kind of wealth enjoyed the country’s wealthiest former executives.
The most comprehensive data on presidential net worth comes from the financial news website 24/7 Wall Street, which in 2010 used historical data to ballpark the inflation-adjusted net worth of every American president. In February of this year, they updated those numbers.
George Washington is by far the richest president, thanks to his large landholdings, with an estimated net worth of $525 million in today’s dollars, almost doubling Thomas Jefferson, who comes in second at $212 million. (John F. Kennedy’s family’s wealth was much larger, at least a billion dollars, but he never controlled the finances, so it’s not counted here.)
Things have changed a lot since the early days of the Republic, when every single president was a wealthy landowner. In the second half of the 19th century, presidents tended to be more middle-class, while the 20th century saw a mix of wealthy industrialists, heirs, and more-modest public servants and lawyers.
24/7 Wall Street estimates the Clintons’ wealth at around $55 million, which puts the former president in the ninth position, between two of the Democratic Party’s most iconic (and wealthiest) presidents: Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR’s cousin, comes in third.
All of the wealthiest presidents on the list, with the exception of Clinton, inherited or married into money. When FDR took up economic populism, calling for a “more equitable … distribution of national wealth” while accepting the Democratic nomination, his patrician peers saw him as a traitor to his class, as University of Texas professor H.W. Brands wrote in his 2008 biography of the president.
As Clinton has inartfully tried to explain, she and Bill did not inherit wealth, but came from relatively modest means and earned money through speaking and writing. Now, after years monetizing her political celebrity, she would be firmly in the upper financial echelon of political figures, but not quite at the very top.
In Congress, several dozen members have net worths up to $50 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but a handful are worth hundreds of millions. Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, reported assets of between $190 million and $250 million in his most recent financial disclosures, far higher than Clinton.
Of course, much of this ranking is academic. But one part is not: Clinton would be the first female president, but also the first commander in chief whose spouse comes with significant income.
Michelle Obama made more money than her husband during much of their relationship, but set her career aside as Barack Obama’s political star rose (in 2007 she gave up a seat on the board of a Wal-Mart supplier and the salary that came with it after her husband criticized the retailer).
Other spouses, like Jackie Kennedy, have come with family money, but none have been major earners like Bill Clinton would be for Hillary. Sometimes the Clinton family business is actual business.