“I think that’s most unfortunate about our Democratic system, that you’re confining it to people who are either very wealthy in their own right or have capacity to gain access to large amounts of money.” – Birth Bayh
(Photo: Stuck in Customs)
With the upcoming election, a lot is being said about Mitt Romney’s wealth, which is estimated to be around 230 million dollars compared to President Obama’s net worth of only around five million. Many people insinuate that a person who is born into great wealth or is very wealthy might be out of touch with the common person, and therefore might not be a good leader for the country. But is that true? Do less wealthy people make better presidents compared to really wealthy ones? Since I have not seen anyone in the media look into this, I thought it would be interesting to find out.
The net worth of every U.S. president at their peak was recently calculated by 24/7 Wall St. and adjusted for inflation. The results are slightly skewed since a few presidents made the majority of their money after leaving office (Bill Clinton) and a few lost money (Thomas Jefferson), but overall, it should give a good approximation.
We can also look at historical rankings of presidents based on surveys of academic historians, political scientists and popular opinions which rank all U.S. presidents on such qualities as achievements, leadership, failures and faults. Wikipedia keeps a list of the major surveys. If we combine all the surveys, we can get a pretty accurate consensus of just how good, great or mediocre each president of the United States was.
If we look at the data, we can compare how great a president was compared to his net worth and see if there is any correlation.
But first is to dispel a common belief that any person despite his wealth or upbringing has an equal chance of being the president of the United States. It is a good sound bite and looks good on paper, but has not been true. Almost every president of the United States has been born into at least an upper middle-class family. The poorest being Andrew Johnson who was born into the upper part of the lower class. (Abraham Lincoln despite the legend was born to a middle-class family.)
So what we are really calculating is the question “Do semi-wealthy people make better U.S. presidents than really wealthy people?” Let’s take a look:
The three richest presidents have been:
- John F. Kennedy – worth almost one billion dollars.
- George Washington – worth almost 500 million dollars.
- Thomas Jefferson – worth 212 million dollars (although died in debt).
The poorest presidents who never were able to amass over one million dollars over their lifetime have been:
James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge.
The top three best-rated presidents have been:
- Abraham Lincoln
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- George Washington.
The 3 worst U.S. presidents have been:
- Warren G. Harding
- James Buchanan
- Andrew Johnson
Here is the complete list. The table includes the presidential rating, net worth and the president’s net worth ranking, which was derived by sorting all the net worth numbers in order from the lowest (poorest) to the highest (wealthiest). I assigned the rating of one (lowest rating) for all the presidents whose net worth was under one million dollars.
|Name||President Rating (Lower the Better)||Net Worth (Inflation Adjusted)||President’s Net Worth (Lower the number the lower the net worth)|
|John Quincy Adams||18||$21,000,000||14|
|William Henry Harrison||39||$5,000,000||5|
|William Howard Taft||22||$3,000,000||3|
|Franklin D. Roosevelt||2||$60,000,000||21|
|James K. Polk||10||$10,000,000||9|
|John F. Kennedy||11||$1,000,000,000||29|
|Rutherford B. Hayes||25||$3,000,000||3|
|Warren G. Harding||43||$1,000,000||1|
|Harry S. Truman||7||$1,000,000||1|
|Martin Van Buren||24||$26,000,000||17|
|Ulysses S. Grant||37||$1,000,000||1|
|Chester A. Arthur||28||$1,000,000||1|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||15||$98,000,000||23|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||9||$8,000,000||8|
|James A. Garfield||29||$1,000,000||1|
|George H. W. Bush||23||$23,000,000||15|
|George W. Bush||34||$20,000,000||13|
The chart below plots the president’s ratings in relation to their net worth.
The top left corner would be the worst-rated presidents who were also the poorest.
The bottom left corner would be presidents who were the best rated and poorest.
In the top right corner are the worst presidents who were the wealthiest.
In the bottom right corner are the best presidents who were the wealthiest.
The trend line shows that in the U.S., the pattern has been that wealthier people do indeed turn out to be better leaders on the average and make better presidents.
But what if we remove the amount of money they made, and focus only on what type of family they were born into? Are the people who are born into less affluent families turning out to be better presidents?
He ranks all the presidents into eight tiers, based on the wealth of the families they were born into. Here are his findings: (The list stops with Ronald Reagan.)
Tier 1: Upper Upper Class
John Quincy Adams
William Henry Harrison
William Howard Taft
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Tier 2: Upper Upper Class and Lower Upper Class
James K. Polk
John F. Kennedy
Tier 3: Lower Upper Class
Tier 4: Lower Upper Class and Upper Middle Class
Rutherford B. Hayes
Warren G. Harding
Harry S. Truman
Tier 5: Upper Middle Class
Martin Van Buren
Ulysses S. Grant
Chester A. Arthur
Lyndon B. Johnson
Tier 6: Middle Class
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Tier 7: Lower Middle Class
James A. Garfield
Tier 8: Upper Lower Class
Here is how the tiers look based on their average president’s ranking.
The lower the reading on the vertical axis the better the president. As you can see, Tier 1 and 2 (presidents born into the wealthiest families) have an average score of around 20. As we get into families born into slightly less wealthier families (Tier 3), the ratings improve. Then the ratings get worse, till we get to Tier 6 (Middle Class) at which the ratings become good again. Followed by Tier 7 and 8 (Lower Middle class and Upper Lower Class).
If we plot the numbers to look at the trend line, we find that better presidents tend to be born into wealthier families compared to presidents born into poorer families.
Since the book stops with Ronald Reagan, I will attempt to guess into which tier the presidents since Ronald Reagan would most likely have been placed into.
George H.W. Bush, born to the family of Prescott Sheldon Bush who was a Wall Street executive banker and Senator, would be most likely considered Tier 2 (Upper Upper Class and Lower Upper Upper Class).
Bill Clinton was born to a middle-class family (his father was a traveling salesman, who died before Bill was born). At age 4, his mother remarried an owner of an automobile dealership. Most likely, Bill Clinton would be considered either Tier 5 (Upper Middle Class) or more likely Tier 4 (Lower Upper Class and Upper Middle Class)—based on his wealthier stepfather.
George W. Bush was born to George H.W. Bush who was a successful business man by the time George was born. George W. Bush would be considered Tier 2 (Upper Upper Class and Lower Upper Upper Class).
Barak Obama was born into an upper middle-class family or Tier 5.
If we factor these presidents into the data, the graph does not change very much and the trend line still shows that people born to wealthier families on the average tend to be better presidents compared to the people born into poorer families. With the best U.S. presidents coming from the middle class or lower- upper-class families and the worst presidents coming from the lower middle class and upper lower class.
If we assume that the future correlates with the past, a bias could be made favoring candidates born into wealthier families. Or another way to look at the stats is to say that people who are born into poorer (lower middle class or upper lower class) have tended to make worse presidents on the average, not better.
In life at times reality often is the opposite of what we expect.