‘Middle-Class Joe’ rakes in millions – POLITICO – POLITICO
“Middle-Class Joe” Biden has a $2.7 million vacation home. He charges more than $100,000 per speaking gig and has inked a book deal likely worth seven figures.
Since leaving office in 2017, the 76-year-old former vice president has watched his bank account swell as he continues to cultivate the image of a regular, Amtrak-riding guy. He’s repeatedly referred to himself as “Middle-Class Joe” on the campaign trail and in speaking engagements as he publicly mulls whether to run for president.
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While his finances might be unexceptional by the standards of well-heeled Washington politicians, Biden is unique among the top Democratic presidential hopefuls because of his avowed distance from the upper class. It’s central to his political identity. But if Biden runs, his newfound wealth could give his Democratic and GOP opponents an opening to attack him as disingenuous, or at least less than advertised.
For Biden and his supporters, “middle class” isn’t so much a financial status as it is a state of mind, a sensibility that’s ingrained in his political DNA. In a party where voters have grown increasingly wary of income inequality, Biden’s use of the nickname functions as an us-vs-them foil that tells both middle- and working-class people he’s one of them, the little guys sneered at by the elites.
“I know I’m called Middle-Class Joe. It’s not meant to be a compliment. It means I’m not sophisticated. But I know what made this country what it is: ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Biden said in Kentucky last year, a refrain he’s used repeatedly for years, including when he floated a potential presidential run in 2017.
And Biden’s supporters argue there’s nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about his fatter bank account since he exited the public sector after almost 50 years.
“During his time in office, fulfilling a pledge he made in his first campaign for the Senate, he held no stocks or bonds or any outside business interests,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for Biden. “After he left the White House, he wrote a best-selling book and went on a speaking tour to pay off debt accumulated during his time in public life and to ensure that his grandchildren would be provided for. His entire career has been dedicated to trying to make life easier for hardworking people in this country. The American people know that.”
Skeptics on the left see it differently.
Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Biden’s earnings on the speaking circuit and elsewhere reinforce his negatives as a Washington insider and deal-maker who cashed out once he left office. At least at the outset, the former vice president is expected to rely on a traditional network of big-money Democratic donors to bankroll his campaign more than his rivals, as opposed to an army of small-dollar givers.
“Joe Biden is the opposite of an outsider and the opposite of someone who will challenge big corporate and moneyed elites on many, many fronts. And his big money and speaking deals would be just the cherry on top of that larger totality of circumstances,” said Green, whose group supports Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “This would be an exacerbating data point in a larger story of him being the wrong person in a moment when people want someone to shake up the political establishment and take on corporate and wealthy elites.”
Democratic voters have grown increasingly concerned with vast income inequality; how to address it is a central issue in the nomination fight. But when it comes to the candidates’ own wealth, Biden’s primary opponents might have a hard time attacking him on his recent money-making ventures because many of them are wealthy themselves.
Several top-tier Democratic campaigns didn’t want to discuss Biden publicly before he gets in the race, though two told POLITICO on background that the way Biden represents his finances could provide an opening to call him out.
Other Democratic candidates are also the target of criticism by opponents over financial matters. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is drawing fire, some of it inaccurate, for receiving financial support from his wealthy father-in-law. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has faced questions since his 2016 presidential bid for releasing only one tax return from 2014. Sanders last month promised he would release a decade’s worth of returns “soon.”
Only two Democrats running for president have released tax information so far: Warren, who posted 10 tax returns, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who released 11, according to the Tax History Project’s Tax Notes, which has collected the information from candidates going back to 1913. Democrats will be under increasing pressure to provide their tax returns to draw a sharper contrast with President Donald Trump, the first nominee in decades not to release tax forms before or after his election.
First elected to the Senate in 1973, Biden was once one of the least wealthy members of the chamber. By the time he left the White House, he and his wife, Jill Biden, reported assets between $303,000 and $1 million, as well as liabilities between $560,000 and $1.2 million. During much of his time in office, Biden’s wife was a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, where she still teaches.
Biden’s finances changed sharply when he left office. He and Jill Biden signed a multi-book deal in early 2017. Russo, Biden’s spokesman, refused to disclose how much the deal is worth. But it’s likely in the “high seven figures,” said Keith Urbahn, a literary agent who specializes in political books and has represented the likes of former FBI Director James Comey and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.
In June 2017, shortly after they inked the book deal, the Bidens purchased their vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., for $2.7 million.
Another house that Biden bought in Wilmington, Del., for $350,000 in 1996 is now worth almost $1.9 million, according to an estimate by the real estate website Zillow. The Bidens rent a third home in Virginia, near the community college where Jill Biden teaches. Russo would not say how much they pay in rent, if anything, or where it’s located.
Of all the homes, however, the new vacation home in Rehoboth Beach is special for Biden, who has told friends and associates that he wants the home as a central place for his family to gather, especially since the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in 2015.
Biden wrote about Beau’s death in “Promise Me, Dad,” the first book published as part of his deal, which Biden has promoted in about 40 stops throughout the country. Russo declined to say how much he charges for the events. Tickets have been advertised for as little as $25, while VIP tickets, which include a photo with Biden, have gone for $450.
In addition to the book tour, Biden has had several other speaking engagements.
Though his team has not released the cost of each event, contracts for some of them have become public, showing him charging from $150,000 to $200,000.
In at least one case, Biden didn’t charge a fee for his appearance: The University of Utah was initially given a speaking fee of $100,000 for a speech in December, but Biden didn’t take a check after he found out it would come from state funds.
The rate appears to be standard, though. An October 2018 email from a University of Utah official, provided to POLITICO by the Republican opposition research firm America Rising, said Biden’s booking firm reported that “the vice president charges a reduced rate for colleges and universities of $100,000.”
At a January speech in Florida’s Democratic bastion of Broward County where he earned $150,000, Biden avoided calling himself “Middle-Class Joe.” But the Miami New Times rapped him for the staged nature of the event — in which noncontroversial questions he answered publicly were pre-approved by him and “triaged for content” — as well as a tour rider that insisted he be fed spaghetti pomodoro and raspberry sorbet before his speech.
In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton was pilloried for her lucrative paid speeches, especially those she made to big banks. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, earned more than $150 million for the talks between 2001 and 2015.
Working-class white voters certainly didn’t hold Trump’s wealth against him in the 2016 election, and Biden’s supporters believe he’s the Democrat best able to win them back. They point to some polls showing Biden leading among whites and less-educated voters as well as the rousing support for him last week at the International Association of Fire Fighters union convention in Washington.
The union’s president, Harold Schaitberger, said Biden’s connection to working-class voters is undeniable because Biden — a Scranton, Pa., native — is genuinely middle class, regardless of how rich he is.
“Donald Trump really stole the voice that the Democratic Party used to speak with and lost it to some degree. And Joe Biden doesn’t just reclaim that. It’s who he is,” Schaitberger said. “He is ‘Working Class Joe.’ It’s not that he’s from Scranton. It’s not what’s in his checkbook.”
Neil Oxman, a longtime Pennsylvania-based Democratic political consultant, said Biden’s middle-class roots are legitimate, even if his finances have changed over the past few years.
“I don’t think anybody can question his truly middle-class, working, Irish Catholic, Lackawanna County, Scranton credentials,” he said. “I think it’s truly genuine.”