By George, Romney wouldn’t be the richest president
The GOP contender’s income and wealth would rank him with some of the richest American presidents ever. But he wouldn't outrank the wealthiest, who was also the first.
The release of Mitt Romney's tax return information for 2010 and 2011 makes clear that if he becomes president of the United States, he would be among the richest individuals to hold that office.
But not the richest. Not even the runner-up.
Romney reported adjusted gross income for 2011 of nearly $22 million. Of that, $8 million was interest and dividends. In this current economic environment of low interest rates and minimal dividends, an $8 million haul alone implies assets in the range of $200 million to $250 million. That's in line with previous estimates and his own candidate's financial disclosure statement, which lists broad ranges.
All in all, a pretty good stash. But in relative terms, Romney, if elected, would not be tops in presidential wealth. (To see Forbes' full list of the 10 richest U.S. presidents, click here.)
So who was?
For our money, George Washington wins hands down. In the largely tax-free environment that characterized colonial America, the father of his country was one of its richest residents, a product of his shrewd business sense, a marriage to a wealthy widow and several inheritances. He benefited from an older brother’s marriage into a powerful family, while early work as a surveyor helped give him a keen understanding of land.
His Mount Vernon plantation grew to 6,500 acres, and he had other acreage in Virginia and what became West Virginia. Washington ran farms, started businesses and owned lots of slaves. Indeed, in their 1996 book, "The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates: A Ranking," Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther ranked Washington 59th, ahead of later-day moguls like J. Paul Getty, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Ronald Perelman. The authors’ ranking methodology used estimated net worth as a percent of the gross national product at the time.
Romney’s millions don’t even earn him runner-up status.
Our pick for No. 2: Herbert Hoover, perhaps the last true businessman to be elected (and, given the Depression that ensued on his watch, maybe not such a great reason to choose a business leader). Nearly two decades before taking office in 1929, he was earning $2.5 million a year in today's dollars from the mining business. That’s far less than Romney’s 2010 income, but the U.S. economy was a whole lot smaller then. It's our opinion that Hoover, relatively, was wealthier. He served as president without pocketing a salary.
The pre-presidential Thomas Jefferson gets our bronze and probably also places ahead of Romney. Due primarily to inheritance, Jefferson was considered one of the richest citizens in his native Virginia. But after he left office, his income was not commensurate with his spending. He died essentially broke.
We put Romney ahead of our No. 4, John F. Kennedy. While some authorities have ranked JFK higher, we think not. Most of the family wealth resided with his tycoon father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Joe and his wife, Rose, outlived JFK, who thus did not receive an inheritance.
What about the current occupant of the White House? Barack Obama started out life relatively poor and was raised in a broken family with little access to significant wealth from family or other sources. Yet he entered the Oval Office in 2009 having collected royalties from two well-received books, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope." His lawyer wife, Michelle, had been a high-paid hospital executive. Their 2006 tax return showed a gross income of $1 million. For 2009 their gross income was $5.6 million, with most of that coming from book royalties. (The $1.4 million Obama was awarded along with the Nobel Peace Prize was donated to charity and, under a special tax provision, wasn’t included in the Obamas' 2009 gross income.)
His 2010 tax return wasn't nearly as flush as Romney's. Adjusted gross income was $1.7 million. But that didn't include perks like free housing and transportation. Obama today is probably worth about $10 million, with the potential for a lot more after he leaves office.
What about the rest of the remaining Republican field? Newt Gingrich reported 2010 income of $3 million. But almost all of that appears to have come from his and his wife's labor, as opposed to existing investments that form the bulk of Romney's wealth. We reckon Gingrich at $5 million. That's also where we put Ron Paul. By far the poorest candidate is Rick Santorum. We figure he has maybe $1 million.
No poor presidents
But the current field on both sides proves this: Despite two centuries of campaign rhetoric touting identification with the common man, the simple fact is that no truly poor individual ever has become president of the United States.
Only four United States presidents actually were born in log cabins, Abraham Lincoln being the most famous. By the time he and the other three, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and James A. Garfield, entered the nation’s highest office, they shared one trait with its other 40 occupants: a certain measure of financial prosperity.
Most of the wealthiest presidents came from distinguished families and had the benefit of inheritance, trust funds or access to family money besides whatever they accumulated on their own. Think the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.
Only a handful of the wealthier presidents could be said to be self-made. Hoover was one. Lyndon B. Johnson started out with humble origins but had achieved sufficient economic means from his Texas broadcast holdings by the time he reached the White House.
More recent U.S. presidents have been far from the poorhouse but, in our judgment, were not among the top 10 while in office. The two George Bushes, for example, grew up in privilege, attending Ivy League colleges and later benefiting from their own entrepreneurial efforts before entering elected politics. The elder Bush founded and sold an oil company while the younger Bush profited from the sale of the Texas Rangers, which he co-owned.
Like Obama, Bill Clinton came from a hard upbringing that included a missing father. But prior to winning the presidency, Clinton had been the longtime Arkansas governor and his wife, Hilary Rodham Clinton, a partner in the state's largest law firm. After leaving office in 2001, Clinton reaped millions yearly from book royalties and lecture fees; he probably has never been richer than he is now.
Despite Clinton's rewarding post-presidency, rich presidents have sometimes encountered financial problems after their service. Besides Jefferson, James Madison also fell from financial grace and died awash in debts.
Our evaluations take into account a number of factors, some of them admittedly subjective, including opinions of historians. To help adjust for two centuries of inflation and even deflation, we also look at a president's worth compared to the economy of his day.
Related at Forbes:
- Slideshow: The 10 richest U.S. presidents
- America’s millionaire capitals
- Amazing homes of the politicians