In a culture that supposedly champions capitalism and success, U.S. politicians seem to spend much of their time downplaying their personal wealth.

Those seeking higher office attempt to flash their "regular folk" credentials, which explains, in part, why former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been trying to untangle herself from comments she made during the promotional tour for her most recent book.

It began during an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, and a question about the $5 million she has made and the more than $100 million her husband, former president Bill Clinton, has received for speaking fees since leaving office.

Clinton defended the amount, saying that when the couple left the White House, they were “dead broke” and in debt (mostly from the millions of dollars of legal bills her husband had racked up).

We “struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea's education,” Clinton told Sawyer. “You know, it was not easy."

Critics and commentators pounced, arguing that the Clintons’ financial future at the time was hardly dire, and that her comments proved she was out of touch with the real economic challenges of average Americans.

'Truly well off'

While Clinton later said her comments were "inartful," she seemed to step in it once more, when, in an interview with the Guardian, Clinton said, “We pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

The questions about Clinton's personal wealth are reminiscent of the scrutiny Mitt Romney faced back when he was running for president. Romney, who made his fortune at Bain Capital, had a difficult time avoiding gaffes as he tried to distance himself from his vast fortune. 

Corporations as People

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a difficult time avoiding gaffes as he tried to distance himself from his vast fortune. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

There was the time, for example, during a campaign stop in motor city Detroit, when he mentioned how his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” He also offered to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 over an issue. And while attending the Daytona 500, he remarked that while he didn’t follow the sport as closely as some fans, he did point out that “I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”

Then, of course, there was the debacle when Romney appeared to dismiss 47 per cent of the electorate who he said paid no taxes.

The comments were a gift to the Democrats, who had been eager to portray Romney as an out-of-touch multimillionaire.

Now the Republicans appear to be employing a similar strategy against Clinton.

Americans don't hate rich people

But Romney had it all wrong, author and columnist Kevin Williamson said at the time. In a piece for the National Review, Williamson wrote that Romney should own his wealth and "quit pretending that he’s an ordinary schmo with ordinary schmo problems and start living a little larger."

While the column was part tongue-in-cheek, it was also making a broader point.

“Americans don’t instinctively hate rich people," Williamson said in a phone interview with CBC News. "We’re happy to watch Donald Trump on television, the Kardashians. We judge movies by how much money they make. We follow sports stars by the size of their contracts.

“I don’t think that Americans resent broadly [people] who have become wealthy or very very wealthy by doing good and useful things."

And that point is key, said Louis Hyman, assistant professor at Cornell University's department of labour relations, law and history.

"I think Americans do respect wealth, but they respect wealth that comes from hard work or perceived hard work," said Hyman, whose research focuses on the history of American capitalism. "So Hillary Clinton, if she was broke in the late '90s, then how did she make her money over the last 10 years when she was secretary of state?

"Was it just from writing books, or from speaking fees? These are not ways in which Americans think are legitimate sources of income. They're not building companies, they're not being entrepreneurs."

"Republicans and Democrats alike would be perfectly accepting of somebody who made their money by creating jobs, whereas it was very difficult to spin that for Romney, and it certainly would be very hard to spin that for Hillary," Hyman said.

'Cease posing as a populist'

Americans aren't loath to elect wealthy presidents, who have included Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and the last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. But it's inauthenticity that is off-putting to voters

“W. was very good at walking that line at being a guy with sort of populist interests," Williamson said. "But he never pretended to be anything than what he was — which was this guy being in an odd position of being a scion of a very powerful northeastern family who himself happened to spend most of his life in Texas and acquired an accent, that, as a native Texan, I can’t identify.”

Williamson said Clinton should cease posing as a populist class warrior.

"All these people should stop pretending like they are regular people with regular problems," he said.