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Quick Question: Can Only The Rich Be President?

Fri, September 6, 2013 3:11pm

Story by Linton Weeks


Donald Trump says he is considering running for president in 2016.

Do you have to be rich to be president of the United States of America?

Donald Trump told ABC News recently that he might run for president in 2016 and that he is qualified because, among other reasons, he has amassed a net worth of more than $10 billion. "I'd spend a lot" on a campaign, he says. "I'd spend whatever it took."

And in August a company called Wealth-X, which keeps tabs on the superwealthy, released a list of America's 10 richest living presidential candidates.

Here it is:

So here's the Quick Question:

Do you have to be rich to be president of the United States of America?

There is a history of well-heeled commanders in chief. In 2010, Forbes put together a list of the 10 Richest Presidents of All Time. George Washington was arguably the wealthiest ever.

"There have been many other very wealthy presidents at each era of the Republic," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He cites Thomas Jefferson, both Benjamin and William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.

President Obama, Sabato points out, is a multimillionaire and "I'll bet will become our first ex-presidential billionaire. Think of his endorsement and speech and book potential. And the corporate and foundation boards."

To be sure, there have been exceptions. Harry Truman "barely had two extra nickels to rub together, and his precarious financial situation resulted in the first presidential pension, passed in Eisenhower's second term," Sabato says.

Gerald Ford wasn't that flush either.

Perhaps Bill Clinton is the best example of a middle-class American becoming president. As governor of Arkansas, his salary was the lowest in the nation — at around $35,000. His wife, Hillary, made more as a lawyer. Now they both are doing quite well — pulling in millions of dollars.

"I still think it is possible for a person of modest means to become president — if the conditions are just right," Sabato says. "But wealth has always been a major qualifying factor for the presidency. It gives you access to the other rich people who fund campaigns, the status to seek high office, the extra time necessary for an all-consuming quest, and freedom from the everyday concerns that keep most people occupied. Thus has it always been, thus ever will it be."

NPR's Alyson Hurt contributed to this report.

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