But the wealth intended to liberate Romney the politician instead has ensnared him. He hoped it would free him; for many voters, it now seems to define him.
Democrats have relentlessly cast him as a corporate raider and out-of-touch plutocrat. And Romney, after more than a year running for president, has made one comment after another that inadvertently reinforces those characterizations.
“Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” a high-dollar donor asked Romney at the private fundraiser that was secretly recorded and leaked this month. “To me, you should be so proud of your wealth. That’s what we all aspire to be. . . . Why not stick up for yourself and say, ‘Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be wealthy and successful?’ ”
Romney paused and launched into a two-minute description of what he tries to get across on the stump, “the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off.” But he never answered the question.
His oldest son, Tagg, offered one explanation for his father’s reticence in an interview Friday. “He was taught that when you do good things, you don’t brag about them.”
Three days before the first presidential debate, seen by some as Romney’s best or even last chance to sell himself, the persistent focus on his riches has taken a deep toll on his image, a battery of recent polls suggest.
By 2 to 1, registered voters in a late August Washington Post-ABC News poll said that Romney would do more to help the wealthy than the middle class. The numbers were flipped for President Obama, with more than twice as many voters saying he would prioritize the middle class over the wealthy. In another measure of trust, registered voters in Ohio, Florida and Virginia gave Obama double-digit margins over Romney when asked which candidate understood the economic problems that Americans are facing, according to Post polls this month.
Money, culture entangled
Americans have elected many rich elites as president, starting with George Washington. But Romney’s wealth, estimated to be between $190 million and $250 million, is inextricably bound up with two cultures that are mysterious and misunderstood by many people: high finance and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He also has a complicated relationship with his own money, which he has been unwilling or unable to explain to the public. One day he says he won’t apologize for his success; another day he jokes before a roomful of donors that he’s “poor as a church mouse.”
In one year, he and his wife, Ann, gave away far more money — $4.2 million — than most Americans will earn in a lifetime, according to the 2011 tax return he filed two weeks ago. But he has resisted calls to release more tax returns, citing a wish to keep his charitable contributions private as one reason. “It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church,” he told Parade magazine.