Stop pretending you’re not rich: Why are Clinton and Biden playing down their wealth?

When top Democrats deny their good fortune, it plays into GOP arguments they’re out of touch with average voters

Topics: Vice President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Income inequality, 2016 Elections, Wealth, Mitt Romney, Editor's Picks, Democrats, , ,

Stop pretending you're not rich: Why are Clinton and Biden playing down their wealth?Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (Credit: AP/Cliff Owen)

Vice President Joe Biden joined his former colleague Hillary Clinton Monday in trying to play down his comparative wealth. At the White House Summit on Working Families Biden tried to empathize with struggling parents, and he probably went a little too far.

“I can speak a little bit from my own experience,” the vice president told the crowd. He then acknowledged he was wearing a “mildly expensive suit” but insisted “I have no savings accounts” and “I don’t own a single stock or bond.”

“But I got a great pension and I got a good salary,” Biden added.

This comes after Hillary Clinton stepped in it, twice. First she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House – it’s true their debts far outweighed their assets but they both had big book deals – and in an interview with the Guardian published Saturday, she claimed voters concerned about income inequality wouldn’t hold her current wealth against her.

“They don’t see me as part of the problem because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through dint of hard work.” That was, of course, a jab at 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who pays a low tax rate because most of his income came from investments.

Now, had Clinton segued into a passionate explanation of how to build a truly progressive tax system, her remark might have made sense, but instead it came off as a cheap shot.

To be fair, Joe Biden is close to telling the truth: As BuzzFeed notes, he was the “poorest” senator when he joined the Obama ticket in 2008, and he lists assets valued at between $276,000 and $940,000, including a rental property. By contrast, President Obama’s assets were listed as valued between $2 million and $7 million. Clinton’s personal wealth is reported to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

But in a country where the U.S. Census Bureau says median net worth (including home value) is only $68,000, even Biden is a wealthy man.



These stumbles on questions of wealth show that even leading Democrats have been influenced by the GOP’s stigmatizing them as privileged hypocrites out of touch with the average voter. Going back to stereotypes about “limousine liberals,” modern conservatives have depicted Democrats as people who want to take the hard-earned dollars of average Americans and give them to people who don’t deserve them (and you know who they are). So Democrats have been reduced to saying they’re not really privileged as a way to say they’re not really out of touch.

This does Republicans’ dirty work for them. To make the obvious point, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did more for poor and working-class Americans (at least whites) than any president in history, and he was very wealthy, and poor and working-class Americans loved him. Democrats shouldn’t be baited into arguments about their comparative personal wealth.

However, while I don’t accept the GOP’s framing here, I wonder if Clinton and Biden’s remarks do indeed reflect their personal distance from the reality of struggling Americans. It’s easy to see how Biden, or even Clinton, could feel that they’re not truly wealthy when they come from middle-class families and walk in worlds of unimaginable wealth, much of it inherited. And maybe that accounts for the lamentable lack of urgency on the issues of poverty and stalled economic opportunity that we see in Washington today, even among many Democrats.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...