Politics is a lucrative business: Senators are worth -- on average-- $13.2 million, while their poor cousins in the House of Representatives average a comparatively paltry $5.9 million in assets. By comparison, the median household in American brings home only $49,445 per year.
Given the huge wealth gap between average Americans and the legislators who represent them, one of the most amusing spectacles of any election cycle is watching rich politicians twist themselves into pretzels as they try to convince voters that they're "just folks." On Wednesday, President Obama did his version of the dance in response to a reporter's question about his finances.
The slur that Obama can't relate to average Americans is nothing new: He has been accused, variously, of being a snob, an elitist, and a post-colonialist Kenyan socialist. Most recently, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made headlines with his claim that "years of flying around in Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers" has left the president "out of touch" with common people.
When a reporter brought up the criticism on Wednesday, Obama responded with an answer that touched on many of his common man bona fides:
I went to law school and college with the help of scholarships; so did my wife. We were still paying off student loans nine years after we graduated. I bought my first car for about $900. It had a big hole in the floor that allowed you to see the road, so I knew my wife wasn't marrying me for my money. We had credit-card debt we hadn't paid off. [In fact] Our personal finances...weren't stable until fairly recently.
But what of the President's claim that his personal finances only recently stabilized? This is harder to verify, as private citizens are not required to publicly disclose their wealth, but OpenSecrets.Org reports that his earnings in 2004 totaled $112,431, and that his total assets were valued at between $200,000 and $400,000.
Interestingly, this tempest over personal finances came on the heels of the passage of the "Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge" or STOCK Act. The law, which President Obama signed on Wednesday, requires many high-level government officials -- including senators, members of the House of Representatives, top executive branch officials and federal judges -- to disclose most financial transactions of more than $1,000. Designed to halt insider trading by members of Congress, the law will also answer many questions about how much money government officials make -- and who is writing the checks.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.
Obama's Personal Finances: My First Car Had a 'Hole in the Floor'
Like his fifth cousin Teddy, FDR got most of his money through family holdings. Worth $60 million (in today's dollars) at his peak, he had residences in New York, Maine and Georgia. Then again, he didn't own his famous New York estate until after his mother died in 1941.
Hoover made his money as a mining company executive: After putting 17 years into the business, he ended up with a $75 million fortune -- and extensive holdings in various mining companies.
Few presidents came from more modest origins than LBJ, but his investments in broadcasting, cattle and private aviation left him with a net worth that topped $98 million.
Madison's 5,000-acre farm was worth a lot, but much of his money derived from his positions as secretary of state and president. And while his fortune at one point reached $101 million, he ended up losing much of it as his farm became less profitable.
JFK had little personal money, but the value of the Kennedy family fortune has been estimated at as much as $1 billion. As one of the nine Kennedy children, JFK's portion would have made him the fifth richest U.S. president in history -- had he lived to inherit it.
Andrew Jackson made his money the old fashioned way: He married into it. Between his 1,500-acre estate and his extensive slave holdings, his fortune topped out at an estimated $119 million.
Teddy Roosevelt inherited an estimated $125 million trust fund, then lost much of it on a failed land venture. Still, his earnings from his writings and his 235-acre estate on Long Island left him in good shape.
Thomas Jefferson was also land-rich: Among other holdings, he owned 5,000 acres at Monticello. But his fortune -- which topped out at an estimated $212 million -- had plummeted by the time he died, and his family had to sell much of his property to pay off his debts.
The Father of his Country was also its richest president: Estimates of his wealth range as high as $525 million. Among other things, he owned 8,000 acres of prime real estate on the banks of the Potomac River -- as well as 300 slaves.
(Wealth is relatively easy to measure: Who's poorest -- that's a tougher thing to gauge. The following presidents are in the bottom tier. But we won't try to rank them in order.)
It's well known that before he went into politics, Truman was a haberdasher, but his men's clothing store nearly went bankrupt. His 18 years in Washington didn't net him a lot of money either, but he saved carefully and was able to live comfortably after he left office. He and his wife, Bess, were the two first recipients of Medicare.
"Silent" Cal Coolidge was not known for his flamboyance. After his presidency, he made a solid living as a newspaper columnist and memoirist, but most of his money was tied up in his home in Northampton, Mass.
Education isn't a particularly lucrative occupation, and Wilson's tenure at Princeton didn't leave him a wealthy man -- even though he was for a time the president of the university. Neither, for that matter, did his stints in the New Jersey governor's mansion and the White House.
Although Chester Arthur made a reasonable amount of money as a lawyer and politician, he died with less than $1 million in net worth, putting him among the less affluent ex-presidents.
A log cabin president like Lincoln, James Garfield spent much of his life in public service. In his case, it didn't pay very well: When he was assassinated in 1881, he was more or less penniless.
One of the most colorful men to occupy the White House, Grant lost his fortune when his son's business partner, Ferdinand Ward, defrauded his investors -- among them, the former president.
Andrew Johnson started out as a tailor before rising to become a mayor, a Tennessee state legislator, a governor, a senator and a president. Along the way, he made a small fortune, but lost half of it when his bank failed.
Abraham Lincoln was famously honest, which helps explain why he took on the debts of a deadbeat business partner. The decision left him deeply in debt -- a situation that was later somewhat rectified by his successful legal career.
James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, was also born in a log cabin. Unlike earlier presidents, he only benefited modestly from his years in public service: Estimates of his personal fortune place it at less than $1 million.