We need a middle-class president

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

There seem to be two prerequisites for the modern U.S. presidency.

1. Being fabulously rich.

2. Successfully pretending you’re not.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz tried his hand at No. 2 last week as he announced his bid for the White House. With his back awkwardly turned to the TV cameras, and a drive-through-worker style microphone clipped to his ear, Cruz relayed a version of his life story, often in third person, to a student crowd at Liberty University in Virginia.

“Imagine another teenage boy being raised in Houston … experiencing challenges at home … heading off to school over 1,000 miles away from home in a place where he knew nobody. Where he was alone and scared. And his parents going through bankruptcy meant there was no financial support at home – so at the age of 17 he went to get two jobs to help pay his way through school. He took over $100,000 in school loans, loans I suspect a lot of y’all can relate to. Loans, that I’ll point out, I just paid off a few years ago.”

Poor Cruz.

All those loans.

Good thing he’s estimated to be worth $1.8 million to $3.5 million.

And he’s not the wealthiest person whose name has been thrown into the hat as a potential candidate for 2016, according to estimates compiled by Crowdpac, a nonpartisan website that aggregates stats about potential political candidates.

Crowdpac estimates Hillary Clinton’s net worth to be $21.5 million (more if you include Bill). Jeb Bush’s: $10 million. Even Elizabeth Warren, enemy of Wall Street, champion of populist financial-sector reform, is estimated to be worth $3.7 million to $10 million, according to CNN Money.

Of the 26 potential candidates identified by Crowdpac, only four – Joe Biden, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Mike Pence – are estimated to be worth less than $1 million.

With a net worth of $150,000, Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, is perhaps the middle-classiest of the bunch. But don’t worry, his campaign would have backing from the billionaire Koch brothers and Steve Forbes, according to The Washington Post. He’s also little-known and has basically no chance of winning the increasingly claustrophobic Republican primary.

(“Too many cooks,” anyone?)

Apart from Cruz, no one has officially declared for president, so the names of those who may run are still largely a matter of speculation. Still, these folks deserve examination. The richest potential contenders are Rick Snyder, a former venture capitalist (net worth: $200 million); Al Gore (also $200 million); and Carly Fiorina, a former tech executive (net worth: $80 million).

So, mostly millionaires.

And two almost-quarter-billionaires.

These folks may want to represent an America where median wealth is only $44,900. Meanwhile, the national median income is about $54,000 per year, and one in five children lives below the federal poverty line, which is about $24,000 annually for a family of four.

The gap between rich and poor in the United States has been growing since the 1970s – and it’s wider than in almost any other industrialized country. (Iran and Nigeria are better.)

None of these would-be candidates can claim to represent that America.

None comes close.

When presidents were of modest means

It’s time for a middle-class president.

Or, at the very least, a middle-class presidential candidate.

It’s not impossible, and there would be important benefits.

First, we just have to look to the past to see that it can be done.

“The interesting thing about the (idea) of a middle-class president is that it’s actually relatively common in certain periods of American history,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “If we define (the middle class) essentially as someone who does not have exorbitant wealth, or does not inherit exorbitant wealth … there’s a period from basically about the mid-19th century up until 1920 where the majority of presidents are what we could consider to be of modest means.”

You can think of the history of presidential wealth in three waves.

Wave one: Landholdings and slaves made the first presidents incredibly rich. George Washington, for example, is estimated to have been worth $525 million in today’s dollars, making him the second wealthiest president in U.S. history, after John F. Kennedy.

(No need to repeat that era.)

Wave two ushers in the rise of the powerful (and rich) political party. There are downsides to this, of course, but, according to Engel, it helped civil servant types – “professional presidents,” as he called them – successfully run for office without being loaded.

Think Lincoln. Or, later, and somewhat separately, Harry S. Truman, who grew up poor and refused to let this nation’s highest office make him rich, turning away money for speaking engagements and advertisements, and refusing to sit on corporate boards.

Engel said he’d traveled to Missouri to see the home Truman lived in after he left the White House, which was actually owned by his mother-in-law, he said. In the kitchen, near the breakfast table, “you look up and you see a water stain on the ceiling because no one had the money to fix the water stain on the ceiling,” he told me. “It’s hard to imagine George W. Bush doing that.”

Not since Truman has a president been worth less than $1 million, according to data compiled by 24/7 Wall Street, which is the basis for the historical figures I’m using.

Now we’re in Wave three: the era when you kinda need to be a millionaire.

Engel says we can thank the decline of powerful political parties; the rise of expensive, media-heavy campaigns; and campaign finance changes, enabled by court decisions, that allow essentially for unlimited donations to political campaigns, favoring the wealthy and connected.

Wealth is a prerequisite

“Wealth and influence has always been an asset,” Engel said. “In the last two generations, we have seen that wealth and influence are prerequisite to entry to politics in a fundamentally new way. … Over the last 30 years, and especially over the last five years or so, we’ve seen such an incredible skyrocketing of the cost of entry to politics that we’re simply not getting a good cross section of Americans even conceiving of the fact that they might run” for office.

There’s no reason to expect a middle-class president would automatically – by merit of his or her income alone – support policies that would benefit middle-class people.

FDR, for example, was among the richest presidents (net worth: $60 million), and also arguably the most pro-middle-class. His presidential terms, which saw the country through the Great Depression of the 1930s, resulted in the federal minimum wage and Social Security.

“We have (presidents) who are very, very wealthy who wind up being on the side of the poor,” Engel told me, “and we have people who grew up with remarkable poverty – Herbert Hoover is a good example – who end up being economically conservative.”

Still, a middle-class presidential candidate could help Americans re-engage with a political system that many see as hopelessly corrupted by money.

Recently, I asked Facebook about the idea of a middle-class president.

Many of you find the idea inconceivable.

Your reasons were telling.

“The only way we’ll get a Middle Class candidate … is if he wins Lottery,” wrote Bryan Booten.

“The problem with someone from the middle class running for president,” said Gwenith Acor, “is that in order to be a viable candidate you would have to sell your soul to the billionaires. …”

“There should be a middle class president,” wrote Chad Oliver. “No one in the government is representative of the people governed … There is no way a middle class person could become any elected official without selling his soul to the devil. It just takes too much money.”

Why wouldn’t you feel that way?

Interests aligned with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than $1 billion trying to elect these men as president in 2012. How could a middle-class person (much less a poor one) rally that much cash? Maybe it’s possible, with enough wealthy friends. But it’s less likely for a middle class person to be able to infiltrate this world of the super-wealthy.

The real meaning is in the symbolism, though.

A middle-class candidate also could have the effect of encouraging young people from all ends of the economic spectrum to see a future for themselves in politics.

I believe Engel when he says most people see politics as out of reach.

And that’s partly because of the money involved.

Think of the future world leaders we’re shunning simply because they aren’t rich.

Is that the most we expect from democracy?

The value of a symbol

I’ll stop complaining for now and end with a suggestion.

What if just one of the 2016 potential presidential candidates vowed to live as if he or she were a middle-class person during the campaign season and while in office.

This shouldn’t seem like a death sentence. It’s what most of us do.

This candidate could take a cue from the former President of Uruguay, José Mujica, who reportedly gave away 90% of his salary to charitable organizations – and lived in a farmhouse rather than a palace.

Or from Pope Francis, who drove a junker car and requested modest living quarters. Or from Truman, who shunned money associated with the presidency and had that water stain in his kitchen. (For this to work, this future president would have to give back some money, since the $400,000 presidential salary puts that person in the 1%.)

The candidates love to pretend they live in modern, middle-class America.

They don’t, but they could take real steps to learn what it’s like.

Read CNNOpinion’s new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.