Published November 05, 2012
The latest national polls show the race for the White House remains in a dead heat with just hours remaining before Americans head to the polls to decide this pivotal election.
Mitt Romney’s strong initial debate performance in October has fueled a fall comeback that raises the chances President Obama may be looking for a new job come January.
But don’t feel too bad for Obama's bank account: Former presidents typically rake in tens of millions of dollars after leaving the Oval Office by delivering highly sought after speeches, writing best-selling books and landing lucrative corporate directorships.
“You never have to worry about an ex-president eating. Being a former president is a ticket to printing money. That’s all it is,” said Larry Sabato, a closely-watched political scientist at the University of Virginia. “When we elect someone president, we nearly guarantee he will become a one hundred millionaire.”
Take former President Bill Clinton, who left office in 2001 heavily in debt due to legal bills. Just a decade later, Clinton hauled in an eye-popping $13.4 million last year via speaking fees alone.
“I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I've done reasonably well since then," Clinton joked at a forum in South Africa in 2010.
If he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, Obama will be able to do “reasonably well” too.
“It’s a huge windfall. If President Obama were to leave office I don’t think he’d be part of the middle class. He’d be part of the 1%,” said Ron Bonjean, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based PR firm Singer Bonjean Strategies.
Nixonian Financial Strategy
Richard Nixon perfected the art of turning a White House stint into fat paychecks back in the 1970s.
Not only that, but the former president managed to resurrect his own reputation while simultaneously paying off hefty legal fees north of $1 million tied to the Watergate scandal.
Nixon negotiated an incredible deal with British talk-show host David Frost in 1977 for a series of interviews, receiving $600,000 and a share of all profits. The lump sum alone would be worth $2.29 million in today’s dollars.
The 37th president also generated $2 million in 1978 by selling his memoirs, which landed on the bestseller list.
“He resigned in disgrace. Yet he made money hand-over-fist between interviews, books and lectures,” said Sabato.
Seeing the cash windfall that even Nixon enjoyed, former President Gerald Ford sat on the boards of Tesoro Petroleum, the Pullman Company and Commercial Credit.
Some were critical of former President Ronald Reagan for accepting about $2 million to speak in Japan shortly after he left office.
“It got a lot of criticism at the time, but today we wouldn’t bat an eye,” said Sabato.
No. 42 Rakes It In
Clinton, though, sets the bar as a post-presidential rain maker.
According to a CNN analysis, Clinton has earned $89 million strictly from paid speeches since leaving office saddled with debt in January 2001. After earning $7.5 million in 2009 and $10.7 million in 2010, Clinton brought in a record $13.4 million from speeches last year alone.
A single speech in Hong Kong last November to Swedish telecom Ericsson (ERIC) triggered a payment of $750,000 -- or nearly double the current presidential annual salary of $400,000.
Clinton, who had a lowly government salary for almost his entire career since 1977, commanded an incredible cash advance of $15 million for his 2004 autobiography, My Life.
Even former President George W. Bush, who entered the White House in 2001 with a fortune of his own, has hit the speaking circuit. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Bush delivered almost 140 paid speeches as of May 2011, generating at least $15 million.
It wasn’t always this easy for presidents to make money after leaving Washington.
Former President Harry Truman had little to no money after returning to Missouri in 1953, forcing him to sell property and publish his memoirs just to get by.
In response, Congress mandated that former presidents receive an annual pension, which today is worth $191,300 -- the salary of current cabinet secretaries.
Obama’s Next Move
So, what will Obama, who has made millions by publishing books, do when he leaves office, whether it’s early next year or some time in 2017?
Obama, who is just 51 and is well liked even by those who disagree with his policies, has understandably been mum on the subject.
He told Comcast’s (CMSCA) NBC last month: “There will be plenty of time over the next four years to consider how I can be a productive citizen in a post-presidency.”
While national polls point to a close race, polls in key battleground states like Ohio suggest Obama may eke out a modest victory on Tuesday in the Electoral College.
No matter when he ultimately needs it, Sabato said the financial playbook is in front of him, should he choose to use it.
“He’ll write more books, he’ll give lectures for millions of dollars. They all do it and everybody expects them to them do it,” said Sabato.