How Presidents Make Their Millions

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When Donald Trump becomes 45th President of the United States on January 20, he'll be assuming an office that's helped substantially improve the means of his predecessors—including the man he'll be replacing, President Barack Obama.

Based on estimates of income from speeches, book deals and pensions, the Obamas could earn as much as $242.5 million after leaving the White House. Not bad for a couple that entered office with $1.3 million in total net worth.

From Oval Office to Opulence

And yet the Obamas’ story isn’t unique. Historically, the presidency acts like an elevator, taking officeholders from lower to higher tiers of wealth, often beginning immediately upon leaving the Oval Office. According to the data, each of the last eight presidents had a higher net worth after vacating the office. Bill Clinton has done the most to cash in during his post-political career.

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Now 15 years removed from his time as president, Clinton, with the help of Hillary, has amassed an estimated $75 million in net worth from speeches and book deals. This represents a 6,250 percent jump from the $1.2 million the couple had when Bill Clinton took office in 1993.

To put that in context, consider that George H.W. Bush has seen his fortune grow from $4 million before taking office to an estimated $23 million today. Son George W. Bush entered office with $20 million. Now, he has an estimated $35 million.

Richard Nixon had $15 million at the time of his death in 1994, a $13 million improvement from when he took office in 1969. Gerald Ford spent just three years as president, entering office in 1974 with $1.4 million in net worth. He’d amass another $5.6 million to reach $7 million by the time of his death in 2006.

Ronald Reagan ranks second on our list for net worth when entering office. The one-time actor had $10.6 million to his name before starting the first of two terms in 1981, growing that to $15.4 million by the time he died in 2004. This feat is especially impressive when considering that Reagan announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, only five years after leaving office. Jimmy Carter’s estimated $7 million in current net worth is just $4.7 million higher than when he left office 35 years ago.

Carter had the lowest average in-office approval rating among this group at 45.5 percent, according to Gallup, but he nevertheless found a way to make money that many past presidents have since relied on.

"He was broke when he came out of the White House," presidential historian James Thurber said of Carter in at 2012 interview with CNN. "If you can write or you can write with someone else, you can write a book and make a great deal of money. Jimmy Carter did that."

And he did it often. Carter has written 16 books and co-authored more, rebuilding what appears to have been a lost fortune. Former presidents have been following in Carter’s footsteps ever since. Crown Publishing paid George W. Bush $7 million for his story. Knopf Publishing paid Bill Clinton a then-record $15 million advance for his 2004 memoir. President Obama’s next book is expected to net at least that, making it a foundational piece of the fortune he and Michelle will start building on January 21.

Booking Wealth: Presidents' Book Deals

Not that he needs it. Instead, President Obama’s memoir will add to what’s already guaranteed to be a cushy retirement that includes a $200,000 annual pension, health care coverage, subsidized travel for official business, and a private office of his choosing.

But when figuring the Obamas’ lifetime earnings of $242.5 million, we focused on books and speeches as the key catalysts. Books alone should net them at least $40 million.

“His is going to be easily the most valuable presidential memoir ever,” Raphael Sagalyn, of the ICM/Sagalyn Literary Agency, told The New York Times. He went on to predict that President Obama could earn $30 million from a multi-book deal and that Michelle Obama’s memoir of life as first lady could also become “the most valuable” of its kind.

Call it business as usual for the Obamas, who for a time lived off sales of “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir Obama wrote in 1995 during his first run for a seat in the Illinois Senate and which was re-released in 2004, during a bid for the U.S. Senate. Sales took off during his run for president four years later.

"Before this book started selling we were living in a condo and we had two cars, but one of them was beat up," Obama told a 2008 campaign crowd, according to CNN.

Money Talks: Presidential Speaking Fees

For the Clintons, speeches have been the centerpiece of an unparalleled moneymaking machine for a former presidential couple. Over 15 years they’ve grossed $153 million for 729 speeches, earning an average of $210,795 per address, CNN reports.

Both Obamas are considered accomplished, even moving, public speakers, so it follows the fees for their speeches will likely be enormous.

But what about net worth? Could the Obamas equal or even exceed the Clintons’ $75 million in their 15th year out of office? That seems likely. President Obama leaves office with two best-sellers already to his name to add to the estimated $40 million in book fees he and Michelle will receive. Add $3 million in pension income and about 50 speeches a year at a conservative $200,000 apiece and you’re already close to $200 million before taxes. Enough to put the Obamas high up on the list of wealthiest former first families—and continuing a tradition of presidential ladder-climbing that dates back nearly 50 years.

Whether the next administration can keep the streak alive is less clear. Trump moves into the White House with a sprawling real estate empire and a $3.7 billion fortune, Forbes estimates. The presidency wouldn’t grant him new access to deals he hasn’t already seen dozens or hundreds of times before. We’ll just have to wait and find out if Trump sees similar gains, or becomes the first modern chief executive to net no financial benefit from holding the highest office in the land.

 

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