Do You Have to be Born Rich to Become President?

When Senator Barack Obama was elected president, his victory was widely taken as a momentous event. In racial terms, Mr. Obama constitutes the first minority president of the United States. This is quite an impressive feat – something that many Americans did not think could be done as late as 2007.

From another perspective, however, Mr. Obama’s election looks less impressive. This perspective is that of class. Mr. Obama was raised by an upper-middle class family: his mother was an anthropologist who had a PhD degree, and Mr. Obama went to a fairly prestigious private school in Hawaii during his early years.

The last president, Mr. George W. Bush, was also born to a wealthy family – in this case far higher up the social ladder than Mr. Obama’s family.

All this raises the question of whether one must be born with parents of a certain income to become president of the United States. In today’s America, inequality higher than it has been for a long time. Does that inequality exclude those born from non-affluent backgrounds from potentially becoming president?

This is a difficult – impossible – question to fully answer. Nevertheless, in the hopes of partially doing so, I have made a table of several recent presidents in the United States and their family background:

Before beginning an analysis of these results, several caveats must be noted. Research for his table relied heavily entirely on a certain online encyclopedia – because this is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed study. Moreover, much of this data is very subjective and subject to dispute. The difference between a “middle-class” and an “upper-middle class” family background is a bit harder to define than the difference between, say, the number three and four. So is evaluating whether a president is “good” or “bad;” with a president like George H. W. Bush, for instance, “neither good nor bad” is probably a better answer than “good.”

The designations of “lower-class,” “working-class,” and so on were drawn from the jobs of the parents. “Elite” generally means the president’s father – and it is always the father, given the way American society is structured – was a President himself, a Governor, a Senator, an executive of a powerful national business, etc. As for the evaluations of whether said president was “good” or “bad,” those are based upon what  most historians and Americans think – not personal opinion.

This table is a cropped version of the full results. For the full table – including all the presidents, which would be too long to put on this post – see here.

With these caveats in mind, there are nevertheless some conclusions that may be drawn from the table. Not all of America’s presidents came from rich and wealthy backgrounds; in fact, only four of the fourteen presidents in the table had “elite” backgrounds. President Bill Clinton’s stepfather worked as the owner of an automobile dealership; President Ronald Reagan’s parents didn’t own a house until Mr. Reagan became a famous actor.

On the other hand, coming from a well-off background certainly helps. Fully half of the presidents above had “elite,” “upper-class,” or “upper-middle class” parents. Interestingly, five of these presidents with well-off backgrounds were Democrats; two (the Bushes) were Republicans. This is fairly ironic given the working-class versus business-class association occupied by the parties.

A president’s family background had relatively little to do with whether he was a good president. Of the nine good presidents in the list, five came from well-off backgrounds and four came from poorer backgrounds.

In fact, a regular person’s chances of becoming president are higher nowadays than they were in much of the past. For instance, during the Gilded Age – if one takes a look at the full list – seven consecutive presidents (from President Chester Arthur to President Woodrow Wilson) came from “elite” or “upper-class” backgrounds.

There is other interesting information on the full list. Of America’s 43 presidents,  24 presidents were “good” presidents, while 17 were “bad.” “Good” and “bad” presidents tend to come and go in waves. From President George Washington to President Andrew Jackson, a total of seven consecutive presidents were “good.” But then immediately after comes a long list of really “bad” presidents, from President Martin Van Buren to President James A. Garfield. Out of these thirteen presidents, eleven are “bad.” To be fair, one of the “good” presidents – President Abraham Lincoln – is commonly considered the greatest president of the United States.

In total, 13 presidents had “elite” backgrounds. This is more than the 10 presidents who had “lower-class” or “working-class” backgrounds. Of those 13 presidents with “elite” backgrounds, 8 were “good” presidents and 5 were “bad.” On the other hand, 5 of the ten presidents with “lower-class” or “working-class” backgrounds were “good.” Given the small sample size, this is not enough to really say anything conclusive.

One can do the same with political parties. The Democratic Party has elected 13 presidents; nine of these came from “well-off” backgrounds. By contrast, the Republican Party has elected 20 presidents. Of these, only eight came from “well-off” backgrounds. On the other hand, eight of the the 13 Democratic presidents were “good” presidents, while only 10 of the twenty Republican presidents were “good” presidents.

In conclusion, slightly more than half of America’s presidents were “good” ones. Democratic presidents, surprisingly, tend to have more elite backgrounds, and Republican presidents more humble ones. But Democratic presidents are also slightly more competent.

And to answer the question posed in the title: No, one does not have to be born rich to become president today – which was not always the case in the past. But being born rich certainly does help.

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5 Responses to Do You Have to be Born Rich to Become President?

  1. ikl says:

    I would take issue with calling LBJ’s background “upper class”. Yes, his father was in the state legislature in Texas. I don’t think that being a local politician from Hill Country in Texas qualifies one as “upper class.” The family didn’t have much money as his father didn’t take bribes or otherwise exploit his public office or political connections for financial gain. He ended his life quite poor and LBJ feared a similar fate for himself.

    By the time LBJ was a teenagers, his family was in a difficult position economically. He worked on a road crew at least one summer, if I remember correctly. His first job out of college was as a teacher at a rural school in a very poor area. Basically, LBJ was a self-made man.

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks for that information; I didn’t know that LBJ’s father ended his life poor, as you say.

      That makes the label a lot more difficult, definitely. Yet on the other hand, I’m still not entirely willing to change it. Here is a description of Mr. Johnson’s father on wikipedia:

      He did well in selling real estate, enough to hire a local teenager as Chauffeur for his wife as well as pay for cleaning ladies. He reinvested the profits from real estate into buying local businesses. He bought several ranches, a small movie theater, as well as the only hotel in Johnson City. In 1916, he even bought the local newspaper, the Johnson City Record, an ‘eight page weekly’ from its owner.

      I find it hard to label anybody who owns a movie theater, a hotel, and the newspaper in the town – however small – any less than upper class.

      As for Johnson’s teaching in impoverished communities, I get the feeling that it was something like “Teach for America” or a gap-year for him. He noted that a lot of the kids would never have the opportunities he had. And, indeed, right after he ended teaching he immediately entered politics – where he took advantage of some of his father’s friends, such as Congressman Sam Rayburn.

      Of course, these background labels shouldn’t be taken with the same seriousness one would take them in an academic study. My research for this was admittedly amateur, and not the product of several months but rather several hours of work. There are probably parts of the table that are plain wrong. On the other hand, I don’t think the LBJ part is wrong – even given the information you’ve provided me now.

      • ikl says:

        Taken out of context, that is a pretty misleading quote, I think. Right before it is the part where Sam Johnson lost all of his money and was forced to retired from the state legislature. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to discuss it for some reason, but Sam Johnson’s businesses went downhill after we return to the state legislature for a second time. I’m not sure why not – the wikipedia article is mainly just a summary of Robert Caro’s terrific biography which is where I learned about Johnson’s early life.

        Hill County was quite poor then, so owning some local businesses hardly made one part of the Texas elite. Sam Johnson was a self-made man (although some of LBJ’s more distant ancestors were prominent people), so that family didn’t have much to fall back on when his businesses went bad.

        LBJ attended San Marcos, which was a teacher’s college. So his first job made sense given his degree. This wasn’t the 30s version of Teach for America. Note that promising sons of actual upper-class Texas families would have tended to go to UT Austin or, if they went East for school, Princeton.

        So Johnson’s case is complicated – it would be misleading to say list his family as poor even though they didn’t have much money at times. But I also think that upper-class is pretty misleading.

  2. mcw90 says:

    Hmm…I usually love you analysis but I think your good/bad analysis is far too arbitrary here. For example, Nixon was a personal failure, but accomplished a lot of very good things in office, including ending the war in Vietnam, opening relations with China, detente with the Soviets, putting men on the moon, and passing comprehensive environmental regulations. It’s far too early to judge Obama either way (he could be Clinton 2.0 or Carter 2.0) and call me crazy, but perhaps too early to judge Bush, whose atrocious approval numbers were not all that different from Truman’s in his final years. History may, if not embrace him like Truman, at least be kinder to him.

    • inoljt says:

      You are right; the good/bad part is very subjective. It’s an attempt to shove a very complex evaluation into a very arbitrary and simple set of categories.

      I made the analysis that way purposely. It was mainly an attempt to create something simple rather so the data could actually be analyzed. When I first started thinking about this post, I was thinking of rating presidents on a scale of 5. But that was far too subjective and arbitrary. So then I thought about three categories – “good,” “bad,” and “neither good nor bad.” In the end I cut it down to two.

      You’re right that Nixon’s presidency is much more than just the word “bad.” But if I put in something like “Nixon was a personal failure, but accomplished a lot of very good things in office,” and do that for the rest of the presidents, there’s just going to be no good way to analyze that as a set of data. At least that’s my thinking behind what I did.

      Finally, these “good/bad” evaluation are based off what I think most historians and Americans would think – not my personal opinion. For instance, I personally would put Reagan as “bad.” But most Americans and historians probably think he was a “good” president – so that’s what I put.

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