Denver - Hillary Rodham Clinton is a hardworking champion of women, children and the poor. Or she's a wealthy elitist. Which is it? If Clinton decides to again run for US president, how voters answer that question could play a role in whether she's able to win the White House in 2016.
Perhaps the biggest news to come from the recent launch of Clinton's memoir of her time as secretary of state isn't what the book says about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, but what she's said about her personal finances while promoting the book.
It started with an interview with ABC News in which she said she and husband Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House in early 2001, wrestling with millions of dollars in legal bills. Then came an interview with The Guardian, in which Clinton appeared to draw a distinction by saying her family paid an “ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”
The couple's daughter, Chelsea Clinton, was pulled in when Politico reported that she earned $600,000 a year at NBC News, where she has infrequently appeared as a special correspondent.
The Clintons are, by almost any measure, quite wealthy, with an annual income that places them solidly among the top 1 percent of Americans. As secretary of state, Clinton's financial disclosure report filed in 2012 showed the couple had an estimated net worth between $5 million and $25 million.
The former first lady can command $200 000 or more for a single speech -four times what the median American household takes home each year.
Being rich isn't necessarily a political liability for potential presidents. Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both entered politics after privileged upbringings. The last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, could vacation at the family's Maine seaside compound or at the younger president's sprawling Texas ranch.
Former President Bill Clinton, who defended his wife this week as someone who isn't “out of touch,” said a president's wealth should matter less than the policies they seek to promote.
“I think I had the lowest net worth of any American president in the 20th century when I took office. But I still could have been tone deaf,” Clinton said.
And yet Republicans still remember how President Barack Obama's campaign dissected Republican opponent Mitt Romney's business dealings in the 2012 election and capitalized on his reluctance to release certain tax records. The campaign successfully created an image of Romney tied to his wealth that was cemented by a secretly filmed video of him telling donors that 47 percent of Americans would automatically vote for Obama because they don't pay income taxes and are “dependent upon government.”
Romney also told a New Hampshire audience that he liked “being able to fire people” and a Detroit gathering that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
Such comments are reminiscent of Clinton's recent struggles to talk about her money and lifestyle, including a January remark in a speech to auto dealers that she hadn't driven a car since 1996.
Democrats argue Clinton's personal wealth won't be able to overshadow a long career in public service, which began as an advocate for poor families led to years of work in Arkansas and Washington on issues such as early childhood education, expanded health care coverage and job creation.
“Attacks are most effective when they play into a pre-existing stereotype about a candidate,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama campaign spokesman. “Nobody thinks that Hillary Clinton spent her career focused on making money. She was in the public eye advocating for a policy agenda.”
In the interview with PBS NewsHour broadcast Wednesday, Clinton said her record “speaks for itself” and her “unartful use of those few words doesn't change who I am, what I've stood for my entire life, what I stand for today.”