President Obama has evidently decided to make assailing Bain Capital the centerpiece of his campaign against Mitt Romney, the private equity firm's former chief executive. Now the president just has to find some way of ensuring that his surrogates will toe the line.
Thursday evening, on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight, the ultimate Democratic grandee became the latest left-leaning politician to express discomfort with the White House's line of attack against Bain -- which seeks to portray Romney and his colleagues as a pack of heartless corporate raiders. Bill Clinton was somewhat subtler than Newark Mayor Corey Booker, who said flatly on NBC's Meet the Press that Democrats needed to "stop attacking private equity," and asserted that such criticism was "nauseating to me." But Clinton was clear enough: "I don't think that we ought to get into the position where we say, 'This is bad work,'" the former president said of private equity, speaking with guest host Harvey Weinstein. "This is good work."
Clinton went on to say that Romney's time in the private sector was of secondary importance: "I think the real issue ought to be, what has Gov. Romney advocated in the campaign that he will do as president? What has President Obama done and what does he propose to do? How do these things stack up against each other?" Still, he provided what could be a ready-made soundbite for the Romney campaign when he told Weinstein, "The man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold."
Clinton and Booker aren't the only prominent Democrats to come to Bain's defense. Former Democratic National Committee chairman and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the president's anti-Bain ads "very disappointing," while ex-Obama auto czar Steve Rattner said, "I don't think there's anything Bain Capital did that they need to be embarrassed about." And in an interview with MSNBC, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner took issue with the notion that Bain behaved somehow immorally: "I think Bain Capital was a very successful business. I think they got a good return for their investors. That is what they were supposed to do." Warner, however, expressed doubt about the relevance of private equity work to the task of governing the country, saying that the presidency requires a "different skill set."
Time noted the close connections of all of the above politicians to the finance industry: Rendell advises two investment firms, Greenhill & Co. and Element Partners; Rattner is co-founder of the private equity group Quadrangle; and Warner founded a venture firm called Columbia Capital. Booker, meanwhile, is a northern New Jersey politician with statewide ambitions (at least): The fortunes of Wall Street can never be far from his mind.
Clinton, too, is tied to the world of finance through high-ranking former officials in his administration, such as Robert Rubin, the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs (GS) who became Treasury secretary in 1995 and took a top post at Citigroup (C) after leaving government. (In April 2010, Clinton said that Rubin and his successor at Treasury, Lawrence Summers, "were wrong in the advice they gave him about regulating derivatives when he was in office," according to Bloomberg Businessweek.)
The Richest and Poorest U.S. Presidents
Private Equity Can Do Good, Says Clinton on Romney's Bain Career
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.
Clinton adopted a tone of personal familiarity with the private equity industry during his discussion with Weinstein. "There is a lot of controversy about that," he admitted. "But if you go in and you try to save a failing company, and you and I have friends here who invest in companies, you can invest in a company, run up the debt, loot it, sell all the assets, and force all the people to lose their retirement and fire them" -- precisely the methodology that the Obama campaign wants to associate with Romney in the minds of voters. "Or ," Clinton continued, "you can go into a company, have cutbacks, try to make it more productive with the purpose of saving it. And when you try, like anything else you try, you don't always succeed."
Such a charitable assessment of the work done by Bain is bound to cause headaches at Obama campaign headquarters. It may even be a sign that the anti-Bain approach is fatally flawed -- that the American elite is too enmeshed with companies like Bain for the Democratic party to effectively executive such a strategy. Already there are signs of a pivot by the Obama campaign, which this week began shifting its focus to Romney's gubernatorial record, noting "Massachusetts was ranked 47th out of 50 states in terms of job creation during Romney's tenure as governor."