Do Really Rich People Make Better or Worse U.S. Presidents?

“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:
(inflation adjusted)

  1. John F. Kennedy – worth almost one billion dollars.
  2. George Washington – worth almost 500 million dollars.
  3. 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:

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  3. George Washington.

The 3 worst U.S. presidents have been:

  1. Warren G. Harding
  2. James Buchanan
  3. 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)
       
George Washington 3 $525,000,000 28
Thomas Jefferson 4 $212,000,000 27
James Madison 13 $101,000,000 24
John Quincy Adams 18 $21,000,000 14
William Henry Harrison 39 $5,000,000 5
John Tyler 36 $51,000,000 20
Zachary Taylor 35 $6,000,000 6
Benjamin Harrison 33 $5,000,000 5
Theodore Roosevelt 5 $125,000,000 26
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
John Adams 12 $19,000,000 12
James Monroe 14 $27,000,000 18
Woodrow Wilson 6 $1,000,000 1
Franklin Pierce 40 $2,000,000 2
Rutherford B. Hayes 25 $3,000,000 3
Grover Cleveland 19 $25,000,000 16
Warren G. Harding 43 $1,000,000 1
Calvin Coolidge 31 $1,000,000 1
Harry S. Truman 7 $1,000,000 1
Andrew Jackson 8 $119,000,000 25
Martin Van Buren 24 $26,000,000 17
James Buchanan 42 $1,000,000 1
Ulysses S. Grant 37 $1,000,000 1
Chester A. Arthur 28 $1,000,000 1
William McKinley 20 $1,000,000 1
Herbert Hoover 30 $75,000,000 22
Lyndon B. Johnson 15 $98,000,000 23
Gerald Ford 26 $7,000,000 7
Jimmy Carter 27 $7,000,000 7
Abraham Lincoln 1 $1,000,000 1
Dwight D. Eisenhower 9 $8,000,000 8
Ronald Reagan 17 $13,000,000 10
Millard Fillmore 38 $4,000,000 4
James A. Garfield 29 $1,000,000 1
Richard Nixon 32 $15,000,000 11
Andrew Johnson 41 $1,000,000 1
George H. W. Bush 23 $23,000,000 15
Bill Clinton 21 $38,000,000 19
George W. Bush 34 $20,000,000 13
Barack Obama 16 $5,000,000 5

 

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?

For that I had to find a 1986 book called The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents by Edward Pessen who did the research into the families of past 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
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
John Quincy Adams
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler
Zachary Taylor
Benjamin Harrison
Theodore Roosevelt
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
John Adams
James Monroe
Woodrow Wilson

Tier 4: Lower Upper Class and Upper Middle Class
Franklin Pierce
Rutherford B. Hayes
Grover Cleveland
Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Harry S. Truman

Tier 5: Upper Middle Class
Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
James Buchanan
Ulysses S. Grant
Chester A. Arthur
William McKinley
Herbert Hoover
Lyndon B. Johnson
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter

Tier 6: Middle Class
Abraham Lincoln
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Ronald Reagan 

Tier 7: Lower Middle Class
Millard Fillmore
James A. Garfield
Richard Nixon 

Tier 8: Upper Lower Class
Andrew Johnson

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.

Michael Page

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