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Hillary's money problem: How she made it

In POLITICO today, I write at some length on Hillary Clinton's recent problems talking about her significant wealth.

The basic argument is that the way Clinton has talked about her money—she worked hard to get it, pays ordinary tax rates unlike some really rich people and was dead broke 14 years ago—is not going to work and could cause her problems both with a potential primary challenge from the left and in a general election where she gets painted as hypocritical and out of touch.

The problem is obvious. Clinton right now comes across as disingenuous and in denial about her place in the nation's wealthiest 1 percent.

Hillary Clinton
Kris Connor | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton

It's true that America has had many wealthy presidents from Kennedy to FDR to George Washington. But it's also true that Americans seem much more comfortable with inherited wealth or wealth created by entrepreneurs who employ people.

The way Hillary and Bill Clinton have made their money appears to create more unease.

"How have they made all this money? Speaking fees? Book advances? These are not the ways that Americans are comfortable with Americans making a lot of money," Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell University, told me. "There is no way her wealth can reflect on her doing better for other people. It's not like she became rich through the creation of a business that employs a lot of people."

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Clinton has made her millions largely through fat speaking fees upwards of $300,000 to financial and other special interest groups and universities such as UNLV and UCLA that are simultaneously saddling students with large amounts of debt. Clinton's various spokespeople and supporters say she also often speaks for low fees or for free and gives some of her fees to the Clinton Foundation, which then presumably uses them for good works.

The trouble with this is the lack of transparency. How much of it does she give to the foundation? What does the foundation do with it? What expenses for the Clintons does the foundation cover? All of this will have to be disclosed in precise detail if Clinton wants to put the issue to rest ahead of a presidential run.

And on the university speaking fees, the issue of student debt just happens to be a main focus of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is the embodiment of the populist mood on the left in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the growing divergence between rich and poor.

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Warren insists she is not running for president (though she steadfastly sticks to the present tense when issuing these denials). So the path is theoretically clear for Clinton to get the nomination. And then liberal Democrats uneasy about her wealth or economic and regulatory policies would all come home and back her against anyone the GOP nominates. Maybe.

But if Clinton continues to look shaky other challengers could easily emerge. Vice President Joe Biden, who recently lauded himself as having been "the poorest member of Congress," obviously harbors ambitions to take the top job. And if 2008 taught us anything it is that outcomes that seem certain can change very quickly.

One caveat to all of this is the very good point made by Noam Scheiber in The New Republic that liberals who largely abandoned Clinton for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 now strongly back the former first lady.

My only question would be how will these poll numbers change following weeks and months of revelations about the sources of Clinton's wealth. And what if a challenger does emerge to Clinton's left? Will the former first lady, New York senator and Secretary of State manage to hold on to her aura of inevitability?

It may also be true that Clinton's money won't matter at all in a general election, certainly not the way Mitt Romney's did in 2012. Democrats roasted Romney for allegedly slashing jobs as a private equity executive and proposing tax policy that would benefit himself and other rich people. Clinton won't have these problems.

But she could still face scorching negative ads suggesting that while she talks about inequality and reigning in Wall Street and other hot-button issues for Democrats she also collected fat checks from Wall Street and occupies the top wrung of the economic ladder while crying poverty.

Such ads might not drive swing voters to an establishment Republican. But they could move rust belt voters toward a GOP populist in the mold of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. And the issue in the end may not be about the money itself or how Clinton made it but rather her general ability to relate to average Americans. The former first lady has been largely in a protective bubble since 1992 going from the White House to the Senate to the campaign trail to the Secretary of State's office.

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That's not her fault but at least in the early stages it looks like Clinton is having a hard time communicating that while she is well-off now it was not always that way and she gets how hard people are struggling in the current tepid economy. Clinton has made stabs at this formulation in various interviews but it's been drowned out by a handful of very clumsy comments.

Maybe she gets better at it fast, and time and a dominating performance in the primaries blow out all the current wealth chatter. But it also seems possible that Clinton's wealth remains a significant hindrance to her ultimate political ambition.

—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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