Rich man, poor man--the American presidency has had its share of each. Yet history tells us that economic status is one of the less reliable leading indicators of presidential performance. The office has been occupied by old-money class warriors and self-made worshippers of capitalist dogma. Indeed, the Oval Office may be one place where size doesn't matter. At least where the size of one's fortune is concerned. It's how a President defines success and what, if any, scars he has accumulated in his rise to power that reveal more than his net worth.
It's hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln as a traitor to his class. But as a candidate for Congress in 1843, Lincoln was the target of a whispering campaign inspired by his marriage into the elite Todd and Edwards families. Lincoln professed astonishment that anyone who had known him as a $10-a-month flatboat man could really believe he had morphed into "the candidate of pride, wealth and aristocratic family distinction." Likewise, his legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad--for which he received as much as $5,000 a case--would later be cited as evidence that Lincoln was no friend of the workingman.
He inoculated himself against such charges in the spring of 1860, when Lincoln-for-President partisans marched into the Illinois Republican state convention bearing a weathered pair of fence rails purportedly split by their hero. In another bit of orchestrated spontaneity, the candidate was called upon to acknowledge his youthful handiwork. He wasn't certain of the rails in question, said Lincoln, but he had split a good many better ones since growing to manhood. In that moment, A. Lincoln, Railroad Lawyer, gave way to Abe Lincoln, Rail Splitter, a more marketable image for one who hadn't betrayed his origins so much as he had spent a lifetime escaping them.
Mitt Romney says Americans celebrate success, and he's right. But that doesn't mean they do so uncritically, still less that they agree on its meaning. The controversy surrounding Romney's wealth, how it was acquired and whether he understands those who have been less successful is part of a long-running debate over private gain and public obligation. It is inseparable from presidential politics, in which the biggest single determinant of any incumbent's chances for re-election is usually his record of economic stewardship.
No matter the era, what hasn't changed is the vulnerability of politicians in times of economic distress. No one begrudged the first George Bush his ancestral home in Kennebunkport, so reminiscent of the Kennedy compound down the coast in Hyannis Port. There the parallels end. That Kennedy lived off a $10 million trust fund established by his bootlegging father didn't preclude him from labeling price-gouging steel executives "sons of bitches." Like Theodore Roosevelt confronting "malefactors of great wealth" as embodied by J.P. Morgan, Kennedy defined himself not by his money but by his enemies. The gentlemanly Bush picked no such fights. While JFK's sailing prowess reinforced the misty legend of a classy guy, Bush's cigarette boat defined him by class. His overhyped encounter with a supermarket scanner fed the narrative of a country squire with oil on his boots, his instincts dulled by noblesse oblige. Would it have generated the same reaction had the country not been in recession? The question answers itself.