Bill Clinton defends Hillary: 'We were $7m in debt … she's not out of touch'

• Former president: 'demise of American dream' is US challenge
• Republican chairman says 'There's Hillary fatigue out there'

Guardian interview: will she run or won't she?

Former president Bill Clinton has defended his wife from Republican criticism about her personal wealth and whether it has put her out of touch with the general public.

Hillary Clinton, the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, has come under fire for saying in an interview with ABC News to promote her new book that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001. In the years since, during which Hillary served as a senator for New York and Barack Obama's first secretary of state, the Clintons have reportedly made around $100m.

In an interview broadcast on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Bill Clinton said: “It is factually true that we were $7m in debt.

“Everybody now assumes that what happened in the intervening years was automatic. I'm shocked that it happened, I'm shocked that people still want me to come here and talk. I'm grateful.”

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told NBC on Sunday the Clintons' wealth would be an impediment to Hillary's ambitions in 2016, because of “how they earned their money, how they talk about their money”.

Most observers expect rising income inequality to be a central issue in 2016.

“I don't think flying in private jets and collecting $250,000 for a speech is considered to be hard work,” he said, when asked if personal wealth was an automatic bar to electoral success, and if the personal fortune of the 2012 Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, had been a factor in his defeat by Obama.

“People respect folks that worked hard and earned their money and got rich, but when you talk about being 'dead broke' and understanding how average people live but you made about $105m giving speeches, I think people are kind of tired of this show, quite frankly.”

Hillary Clinton last week told the Guardian that ordinary Americans "don't see me as part of the problem, because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we've done it through dint of hard work.”

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Clintons had used trusts to limit their payments of estate tax.

Asked on Sunday if he and his wife's financial success had caused her to lose touch with ordinary people on issue such as tax, Bill Clinton said: “She's not out of touch. She advocated and worked as a senator for things that were good for people and before that, all her life.

“The people asking her the questions should put this into some sort of context.”

On Sunday, Preibus said: “There's Hillary fatigue out there, it's setting in. People are tired of this story and I believe this early run for the White House is going to come back and bite them. It already is.”

Clinton said he did not believe Republican criticisms were unfair, as “you get to decide what you think, I don't, we have the first amendment.” But he added: “What I'm saying is the debate's the wrong debate.

“You need to show by their policies and their statements about current conditions, how candidates of both parties … feel about the central challenge of our time, which is the demise of the American dream and the loss of our leadership as the most successful middle-class country in the world.

“I think I had the lowest net worth of any American president in the 20th century, when I took office. But … now we've got a good life and I'm grateful for it. But we still go to our local grocery store at the weekend, we talk to people in our town, we know what's going on.

Hillary Clinton book signing
Hillary Clinton greets customers at a Little Rock, Arkansas Walmart store as she signs copies of her book, Hard Choices. Photograph: Danny Johnston/AP Photograph: Danny Johnston/AP

“The real issue is, if you've been fortunate enough to be successful, is are you now out of touch and insensitive to the agonising struggles other people are facing. That's the real issue.”

Clinton also defended Barack Obama's record on the economy, saying of a president with whom he and Hillary are persistently rumoured not to get on: “He didn't cause the meltdown. The actions his administration took kept it from being worse.

“And there have been concerted efforts to stop implementing his economic plan in the second term, so none of you have any idea whether it would've worked or not.”


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

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