GOP candidate Mitt Romney has disclosed that his personal wealth is roughly somewhere in the broad range of $190 million to $250 million. Romney is about 50 times richer than President Barack Obama, whose worth is somewhere in the $2.2 million to $7.5 million range. If elected, Romney certainly would rank within the top five wealthiest presidents in American history.
How does Romney's wealth compare with ordinary Americans? Census data reveal that the average American household had a net worth of $120,300 in 2007 (prior to the global recession) with the ordinary family’s income at approximately $50,000. For Columbia University Professor Shamus Khan, "People say Romney made $50,000 a day while not working last year. What do you do with all that money? I can't even imagine spending it. Well, maybe …"
Does this make Romney out of touch with the average Joe? The simple fact that he is wealthy does not.
However, his resistance to releasing his tax returns and his public gaffes have led many to conclude he is.
Media coverage of his victory in Florida became dominated by his own statement that he is “not concerned about the very poor” because they have a safety net. Romney also has claimed that he has not made "very much" from his speaking engagements, and then the amount was revealed to be $375,000 in fees. He also offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet on health care during a nationally televised GOP debate. In a speech to unemployed workers in Florida, Romney admitted he enjoyed firing people and that, like them, he was unemployed. The most damaging may have been his revelation at the Iowa State Fair that “corporations are people.”
While such statements may have been taken out of context and will likely not hurt him with Republicans in the general election, Democrats will pounce on them in the form of TV ads directed at independent voters in economically hard-hit swing states.
Romney must be aware that a more populist electorate has directed its anger and frustration at both political parties. The tea party has channeled conservative anger at the Republican establishment and who they see as big spending liberals like Obama. This helps to explain why so many Republican voters are disenchanted with Romney and see him as a Massachusetts moderate masquerading as a Republican. Occupy Wall Street has directed its frustration at the broader and more complex connections between economic power and the political system, which has led some to be more aware of wealth disparity and income inequality.
For many, the time has come for Americans to have a broad discussion about wealth and its influence in the political system. Does Romney's fortune make it more likely that we will have this conversation?
Chris Dolan is an assistant professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College and the author of “Striking First,” “In War We Trust” and “The Presidency and Economic Policy.”