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Biden, Clinton, you're rich. Own it

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Biden, Hillary gaffes show how wide America's wealth gap has become
  • He says if they want to be president, they should find less tone-deaf way to discuss money
  • Louis: Both may feel poorer than super-rich they know, but median U.S. income is $53,000
  • Louis: They're not "just plain folks," they're among country's most fortunate; should own it

A pair of gaffes by Vice President Biden and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton illustrate just how hard it is to explain how vast the gaps of income and wealth in America have become -- including the significant but seldom-discussed difference between being merely rich and being super-rich.

When Biden recently told an audience -- inaccurately, it turned out -- "I don't own a single stock or bond ... I have no savings accounts," he was widely seen as responding to earlier comments by Clinton that she and her multimillionaire husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, would not be seen by voters as part of the economic elite who crashed the economy because "we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off."

Errol Louis

Both statements were widely seen as hopelessly off-key and out of touch, especially coming from politicians whose not-so-secret hopes for a shot at running for president in 2016 depend on connecting with average Americans.

If they expect to make it through the coming campaign without further ridicule, Biden and Clinton will have to figure out a better way to discuss -- or not discuss -- their personal finances.

Let's start with a reality check. Biden and his wife do, indeed, own multiple savings and stock accounts, but most have less than $15,000 in them. That makes Biden relatively poor, compared with his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate, whose average wealth is nearly $1 million.

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But the vice president is much better off than the typical U.S. family, which has a savings account balance of only $3,800. More than half of all Americans own no stock at all, and only one-third have stock accounts worth more than $5,000.

Clinton suffers a similar problem of perspective. It's true that she and her husband ended the Clinton presidency facing $5 million in legal bills and no place to live (they'd spent more than a decade living in the Arkansas governor's mansion and then the White House). But Hillary Clinton's $8 million advance for her autobiography instantly moved the family into the 1%, and both she and her husband can command $200,000 per speech. Bill Clinton's net worth is estimated at $55 million.

Even with all that wealth, Clinton's underlying point -- that she and Bill earn their money and pay taxes on it every year -- is valid. The rarified company the former first couple keeps put them in touch with the super-rich -- heirs to great fortunes and owners of vast companies who don't need to write books or give speeches to rake in their millions.

It's the difference between life in the top 1% -- which requires household earnings of about $394,000 a year -- and the top .01%, where the money zooms into the stratosphere and, more important, comes mostly from stocks and other investments rather than work.

When merely rich people like Biden and Clinton look around within the 1%, they can't help but notice -- perhaps with a touch of envy -- that the top 0.1% crowd is living a very different lifestyle. It's one thing to fly first class (or even Air Force One) and quite another to pal around with people who command their own personal fleets of private jets.

But if Biden and Clinton are serious about a 2016 foray into the vote-getting business, they must suppress the very real urge to present themselves as "just plain folks" in a country where they are, by any measure, among the most fortunate. According to Census Bureau figures, half of all U.S. households earn less than $53,000 a year.

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Those voters aren't likely to extend much sympathy to a vice president crying the blues about saving nothing while earning a federal salary of $233,000 a year or an ex-Cabinet member, ex-senator who commands $200,000 per speech.

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The surest cure for seeming out of touch is to hit the campaign trail, with its endless string of town hall meetings and county fairs, its trips to diners, bowling alleys and factories during shift changes. It will take Biden and Clinton back to their own working-class roots, and remind them what real economic struggle looks like.

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