In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two of the principal presumed contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, pointedly talking about their purportedly humble economic circumstances.
Clinton, who with her husband Bill is worth tens of millions of dollars, first said that she and the former President were “dead broke” when they left the White House. She was immediately ridiculed for that comment, and since then has tried to explain that, even though they are millionaires many times over and make tens of thousands of dollars each time they give a speech, they struggled earlier in life and pay “ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”
Biden, on the other hand, said people shouldn’t hold it against him that he isn’t rich. He says he doesn’t own a single stock or bond, and has no savings account. Of course, fact checkers quickly determined that his disclosure forms show that, in 2013 at least, he had one savings account and two checking accounts, and his wife holds certificates of deposit and investments in several different mutual funds. Biden concedes that he has a “great pension” — achieved from being a Senator for decades — and makes a “good salary.” (As VP, Biden earns $227,500 per year and gets lots of freebies.)
Clinton and Biden obviously think they need to make such statements to enhance their electability — which is why we are treated to the spectacle of two people who make far more than the vast majority of Americans, and who live lifestyles that exceed what most people dream of, consciously downplaying their success. The history of poor-mouthing it by American politicians is a rich one. During the 1800s, candidates touted their often exaggerated log-cabin roots, and in the early 20th century Horatio Alger tales were popular. More recently, the elections of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush seemed to take the wealth issue off the table. Apparently not!
These days, the poor-mouth strategy seems more likely to set a politician up for a fall rather than winning votes; both Clinton and Biden have been chided for their implausible recent remarks. But let’s set aside issues of truthfulness, candor, and awareness of how normal people live — why would you want to vote for someone who hasn’t been successful and responsible about their finances? And if Joe Biden in fact doesn’t have a savings account or own any stocks or bonds after decades of receiving the hefty salaries of U.S. Senator and Vice President, what the heck has he been doing with all that money for all those years? Most of us working stiffs have been scrimping and savings for decades in a responsible attempt to have a decent retirement. I guess old Joe doesn’t need to worry about that with his “great pension,” eh?