That notion — wealth as political liability — is spliced into each tut-tutting reaction to each tin-eared utterance from Romney, a candidate who wants so badly to turn his financial success into a political asset but keeps stumbling into class warfare minefields. You’ve heard the disapproving chatter. How dare he defend himself by challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet! How dare he boast that his wife has two Cadillacs! How dare he say he didn’t make much in speaking fees when he actually made more than $370,000!
Well, here’s a question for you: Wouldn’t you like to be able to casually throw around $10,000 bets, own a couple of Caddies, haul in a few hundred grand to give a few speeches? And would it matter to you whether you made your dough building widgets or buying and selling shares in a widget-manufacturing company, hitting a baseball or collecting an inheritance?
President Obama keeps picking away at this perceived Romney vulnerability, speechifying about inequality, pressing to tax the wealthy and spare the middle class and reminding listeners that he wasn’t born with “a silver spoon” in his mouth, a not-so-subtle memory-jogger that Romney was born into a well-heeled family.
“Obviously, it’s trying to play on the anger of the nation about the economy,” says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian and author of the book “Governing America: The Revival of Political History.” “But it’s a risk for Obama. The Republicans have always wanted to say Obama is left of center. The risk Obama faces is that this plays into that.”
Certainly, wealth hasn’t dissuaded Americans from choosing their leaders in the past, from George Washington, the Virginia agricultural baron, to George W. Bush, the Texas privileged son. Congress is filled with the wealthy. More than two-thirds of U.S. senators and nearly half of Congress as a whole are millionaires, according to an analysis released late last year by the Center for Responsive Politics. Rare is the political bigwig without a big account balance.
Americans aren’t just inclined to elect the wealthy. They’re also generally okay with the existence of an upper class, and they have been for some time. But it goes deeper than that. They also think we’re better off for having economic elites. Twenty-two years ago, Gallup asked a sampling of Americans whether they thought the United States benefited from having a class of rich people. Sixty-two percent answered “yes.” The firm asked the same question in May, and almost the same percentage — 63 percent — answered in the affirmative. A majority of Republicans feel this way, but so do majorities, albeit smaller majorities, of Democrats and independents. Men and women, too. Conservatives, moderates and liberals? Them too.