The ongoing debate over income inequality has picked up steam, especially as the economic recovery is widely considered to be benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. In fact, President Barack Obama promised to tackle income inequality in this year’s State of the Union address.
Obama said that the key to the country’s success is “middle-class economics — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Income inequality will likely be a central issue in the 2016 presidential elections.
A struggling middle class stands in stark contrast to the wealth of America’s presidents. While presidents were regularly middle class or even poor in the 19th century, they were far wealthier in the 20th century. Each of the last four presidents, including President Obama, is a millionaire.
Current presidential candidates are also far richer than the average American. Though President Bill Clinton likes to point out that he was the poorest president elected in the 20th century, his great success as a public speaker after his term in office has made him among the wealthiest presidents of all time. After resigning from office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has enjoyed similar success, amassing a fortune from book deals and speaking engagements.
Secretary Clinton received an estimated $14 million advance on her book last year, and she has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for each speaking engagement, figures that rival her husband’s. In all, the couple’s net worth is estimated by 24/7 Wall St. to be $60 million, making it one of the wealthiest presidential estates in history.
Five years ago, 24/7 Wall St. published “The Net worth of Every American President, from Washington to Obama.” Each year, we have updated our figures to reflect the earnings of the still-living presidents. One thing remains clear: these days, it pays to be president, especially after leaving office.
In this year’s updated list, the only currently living president who is counted among of the wealthiest of all time is President Clinton.
President Obama is not one of the richest presidents. Obama receives a salary of $400,000 a year as president, which, while quite generous, doesn’t come close to the salaries of today’s top executive. The president’s annual income has actually dropped steadily since he entered office. In 2009, the president earned $5.5 million. That figure fell to less than $1 million in 2012 and fell again to just over $500,000 in 2013. This is primarily due to a decline in revenue from his prior book deals. 24/7 Wall St. estimates the president’s net worth to be unchanged at $7.5 million.
The net worth of the presidents varies widely. George Washington’s estate was worth more than half a billion in today’s dollars. On the other hand, several presidents went bankrupt.
The fortunes of America’s presidents are often tied to the economy of their time. As the focus of the economy has changed, so has the way the presidents made their money.
It is not surprising then to find that the first few presidents — from Washington’s election to about 75 years later — were large landowners. They generally made money from land, crops, and commodity speculation. Of course, this left them highly vulnerable to poor crop yields, and they could lose most or all of their properties because of a few bad years.
By 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era. Beginning with Millard Fillmore, most presidents were lawyers who spent years in public service. They rarely amassed large fortunes and their incomes often came almost entirely from their salaries.
These American presidents were distinctly middle class and often retired without the means to support themselves in anyway close to the presidential lifestyle. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had modest net worths when they died.
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there was another significant change to the economy. Large, professionally organized corporations in the oil, mining, financial, and railroad sectors allowed individuals to amass large fortunes.
The Kennedys were wealthy because of the financial empire built by Joseph Kennedy. Herbert Hoover made millions of dollars as the owner of mining companies. Since the early 20th century, the fortunes of many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both of the Bushes were driven by inherited wealth.
The net worth figures for the 10 wealthiest presidents are in 2010 dollars. Because several of the presidents, particularly in the early 19th century, made and lost huge fortunes in a matter of a few years, the net worth of each president is for the peak time. The exception to the 2010 rule are the presidents who are still living and have more recent earnings. In the case of each president, we have taken into account hard assets such as land, estimated lifetime savings based on work history, inheritance, and homes. Wages considered were earned for services as varied as collector of customs at the Port of New York to royalties on books, as well as ownership of companies and yields from family estates.
This is 24/7 Wall St.’s list of the richest U.S. presidents.