Mitt Romney, who grew up wealthy as the son of the chief executive of American Motors and who made his own fortune in the private-equity business, saw his Republican presidential campaign poll numbers tumble after former House speaker Newt Gingrich began portraying him as a detached millionaire who made his fortune by cutting jobs as much as by creating them.
Will that picture of the former Massachusetts governor stick? Why do Americans admire some wealthy politicians, but resent others?
POLL: Do you admire these wealthy Americans?
One simple answer is that Americans love a self-made man and tend to be suspicious of those born with money. But for a people of a nation founded in rebellion against rule by men with inherited wealth, Americans have happily supported many politicians — Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes — who grew up rich.
As Romney has discovered, some wealthy politicians win acceptance from people who are just scraping by, while others get tagged as hopelessly out of touch.
The most important tool wealthy politicians have relied on to win over the public is pure force of personality — and that often includes a gift for self-deprecating humor.
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both came from big money, yet the presidents’ larger-than-life affability and celebrity won them admiration across class lines. Kennedy came to elective politics with a dramatic backstory as a war hero that canceled out most suspicions that he might be a rich dandy.
Romney, however, despite several attempts to reshape his message, remains awkward in his discussions about money. When he handed $50 to an unemployed South Carolina woman who told him her hard-luck story, referred to his $370,000 in income from speaking fees as “not very much,” or challenged opponent Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, Romney unintentionally enriched the narrative that Gingrich is peddling, in which Romney lives in a world “of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million a year income with no work.”
The popular image of Romney’s wealth is muddled because he both grew up rich and made his own fortune. One reason former pizza magnate Herman Cain rocketed to the top of the charts earlier in this primary season is that he evidently pulled himself up by his own bootstraps — the classic American success story. The same goes for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started out as a parking-lot attendant and is now listed by Forbes as the nation’s 12th-richest person.