Obama and the Wealth of Presidents

Before he graced the lowly dollar bill, George Washington was a well-off landowner and farmer. In fact a recent article in the Atlantic, puts him at the top of the presidential financial heap. The piece estimates his net worth at its peak at a cool $545 million. No wonder he looks so unflappable.  Looking at Presidential wealth over the decades and centuries highlights an interesting point for today’s investors, especially those focused on retirement savings.

Not only were most occupants of the Oval Office quite well off, but in recent decades many made much of their money after they left office. Between guaranteed pension plans, book advances and speaking fees, the gentlemen setting the national financial agenda today stand to actually make more money “in retirement” than they did while working.  They are also some of the very few who don’t have to worry about the ups and downs of a 401(k)plan.

Washington was well-off entering office, but he also was well paid while there:

“His Virginia plantation, “Mount Vernon,” consisted of five separate farms on 8,000 acres of prime farmland, run by over 300 slaves. His wife, Martha Washington, inherited significant property from her father. Washington made significantly more than subsequent presidents: his salary was two percent of the total U.S. budget in 1789.”

It turns out Presidential wealth is an interesting window onto the broader economic forces that ruled the nation over the years. Like Washington, the early presidents had most of their wealth tied to the land, and they were all well off. Every one a millionaire until 1857 when James Buchanan ushered in the era of professional Presidents — mostly lawyers. This group included Abraham Lincoln.

By the 20th Century businessmen were starting to pop up in the Oval Office. Herbert Hoover made millions owning mines and donated his presidential salary to charity. Gerald Ford wasn’t wealthy when he left the White House, but a retirement spent sitting on corporate boards got him comfortably through the golden years. John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt inherited wealth.

Of course there are those who never made much. As President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson had prestige, but little in the bank. President No. 33, Harry S. Truman, a Missouri  haberdasher, almost went bankrupt before joining the public sector.

So far, Barrack Obama’s hit $5 million, but that doesn’t count the post-presidential speaking fees that are currently helping to balloon William Jefferson Clinton’s bank account, or the Presidential retirement perks that the Congressional Research Service reports can add up to more $ 1 million a year.

A hat tip to BudgetsareSexy, which brought this to my attention.

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