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Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, July 3, 2019. Biden and his wife made millions through speeches and books after he left office, according to tax returns his campaign released on July 9.

JORDAN GALE/The New York Times News Service

Over his long career in politics, Joe Biden established his everyman bona fides by citing his status as the poorest member of the Senate and referring to himself as “Middle-Class Joe.” But in the first two years after leaving office, Biden substantially improved his financial fortunes, earning more than US$15-million, according to tax returns his campaign released Tuesday.

Thanks to six-figure speaking engagements and a lucrative deal to write a set of books, Biden and his wife, Jill, reported an adjusted gross income of about US$11-million in 2017 and US$4.6-million in 2018 – far more than any of his major Democratic primary opponents. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and her husband reported the next-highest income, earning US$3.4-million over those two years.

On a separate financial disclosure report, also made public Tuesday, the Bidens reported current assets worth between US$2.2-million and US$8-million, up from the range of US$303,000 to just more than US$1 million that he reported when his second term as vice president ended in January 2017.

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In a crowded field of Democratic rivals, many of whom are rolling out policies to address income inequality and channelling anger toward corporate America, being ranked among the millionaires amounts to an unwanted title. And for Biden, 76, it could be a particularly thorny issue.

He has spent decades carefully crafting his image as a relatable figure, often referring to his hardscrabble roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and working-class childhood in Delaware, and seeming at home with union voters in the industrial Midwest. Now a millionaire himself, Biden is likely to face the uncomfortable claim that he is suddenly out of step with the voters he covets.

Certainly, Biden is not alone: His three closest rivals in the polls – Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – are all millionaires, too. The latest Democrat to enter the race, Tom Steyer, is a billionaire former hedge fund investor. And President Donald Trump openly discusses his wealth, yet he still enjoyed support from blue-collar and union workers in 2016.

Since leaving office, Biden has worked with advisers to create non-profit and academic centres while holding a paid professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. His campaign said in a statement Tuesday that Biden had worked to “generate ideas on how we can help rebuild the American middle class, strengthen global leadership and end cancer as we know it.”

Biden has also given dozens of paid speeches, including to universities and business leaders, with fees as high as US$234,820. And in 2017, he and his wife signed a three-book deal with Flatiron Books, which was reported to be worth US$8-million. After the announcement, they purchased a six-bedroom vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for US$2.7-million.

The Bidens’ income increased sharply after he left office. On their 2016 tax return, the Bidens reported an adjusted gross income of US$396,456. At the time, their income included Biden’s annual salary as vice president and his government pension, Jill Biden’s income as a community college professor, and Social Security benefits.

Biden’s new-found wealth has not changed his message. In his first remarks during last month’s Democratic debate, Biden spoke of “enormous income inequality” and promised to eliminate Trump’s “tax cuts for the wealthy.”

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“Ordinary middle-class Americans built America,” Biden said. “My dad used to have an expression – he said, ‘Joe, a job is about a lot more than a paycheque; it’s about your dignity, it’s about respect, it’s being able to look your kid in the eye and say everything’s going to be OK.’ ”

But in contrast to some of his more progressive rivals, who have sought distance from wealthy donors – or have at least played down their reliance on them – Biden is open about his frequent high-dollar fundraising events, which are covered by the news media. He raised US$21.5 million since entering the race at the end of April, his campaign said last week – less than Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised in the second quarter of the year, but still outpacing other top rivals.

According to the campaign, which sought to emphasize Biden’s appeal to small-dollar donors, the average donation was US$49.

As Biden grew his personal wealth during his time away from elective office, he saw how Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid faced withering attacks over claims that she and her husband had cashed in on their public service as they made tens of millions of dollars giving speeches, consulting and writing books.

Biden tried to toe the line of making money off his celebrity while also not damaging a future presidential bid.

On his disclosure, Biden listed honorariums for roughly 50 public appearances beginning in late 2017, including book tour events and speaking engagements. Biden also made unpaid speaking appearances during that time, his campaign said when asked about engagements that were not listed on the disclosure. (The disclosure only included honorariums paid in 2018 or later.)

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In January, Biden visited the battleground state of Florida for a speaking engagement in Fort Lauderdale, where he was paid an honorarium of US$134,933 from the Performing Arts Center Authority. During a November swing through the Bay Area of California, an important Super Tuesday state that is also home to Harris, Biden gave four speeches, receiving about US$500,000 in fees.

Most of Biden’s paid speeches have been in conjunction with a tour to promote “Promise Me, Dad,” a best-selling 2017 book about the final year of his son Beau’s life, Biden’s spokesman told The New York Times for an article this year. His campaign said that “every one of his speaking engagements was public, and more than half were also open to the press.”

Jill Biden also listed more than a dozen of speaking engagements that had associated honorariums ranging from US$25,367 to US$66,400.

In releasing his tax returns for the past three years, Biden’s campaign noted that he had now released 21 years of returns. Other Democrats in the field have also shared their recent returns, while chiding Trump, who has refused to make his taxes public.

The Bidens’ effective tax rate has increased as they have earned more money – and paid more federal taxes – in recent years. In 2018, they paid an effective federal tax rate of 33 per cent, compared with the 24 per cent they paid in 2016. The Bidens reported charitable donations of US$1-million in 2017 and US$276,000 in 2018, up from US$5,889 in 2016.

Presidential candidates are required to file financial disclosure reports with the government, giving voters a view into their assets, income and debts. Some of Biden’s rivals have also disclosed considerable wealth, including book deals, in their filings.

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According to recent figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, Warren reported a net worth between US$4.9-million and US$11-million; Harris reported a range of US$1.9-million to US$6-million; and Sanders disclosed a range between US$729,030 and US$1.8-million. (Sanders also acknowledged in April that he was a millionaire.)

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