It turns out that Mitt Romney is worth up to $255 million, according to the latest federal financial disclosure reports. This makes him one of the richest people ever to seek the presidency—and Democrats are trying to make the most of it by arguing that he is too rich, too privileged, and too much of an elitist to understand the problems of everyday Americans.
The Democrats, however, are off base on this issue. Traditionally, personal wealth has not been a disqualifier among voters for America's presidents. In fact, some of the nation's best and most admired leaders have been people of great means.
The Founding Fathers were in many cases American aristocrats, men of property who didn't live like everyday folks. This included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia planters who had immense land holdings. Each owned slaves who worked at their plantations and at the president's house. Each became popular in his own era and a revered figure in American history.
The list of America's richest presidents also includes other iconic figures including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. All of them had privileged lives far removed from the experiences of everyday people. (The list also includes Herbert Hoover, who earned a vast fortune in the mining business. Unlike these other American Brahmins, however, Hoover couldn't persuade the people that he understood or could do much about their plight during the Depression.)
In contemporary terms, President Obama is a millionaire, but lags far behind Romney, a former executive at the private-equity firm Bain Capital, in net worth.
What defined the rich-but-admired presidents in the past was not their wealth but their ability to connect with Middle America and, especially in Franklin Roosevelt's case, the poor. FDR was even accused by other rich people of being a traitor to his class because he aggressively used the government to redistribute wealth and intervene in the economy during the Depression.
Theodore Roosevelt was also a man of inherited privilege. He assailed the super-rich as heartless, greedy "malefactors of great wealth."
Kennedy, still another man who inherited a fortune, took the edge off his aristocratic status by emerging as a hero during World War II, living a life of public service, and reaching out to the less fortunate during his presidency.
So what is Romney to do? He doesn't seem to have a gift for showing empathy, and it remains to be seen whether he can make a personal connection with Middle America. So he is billing himself as "Mr. Fix-it," the candidate with a track record of repairing broken institutions and businesses, who now wants to do the same thing for the economy. This is probably his best approach under the circumstances.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.