(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story ran online.)
It hardly counts as news anymore when some put-upon billionaire starts fulminating about Barack Obama. The likes of the Koch brothers, Stephen Schwarzman, and Leon Cooperman have already called the president all sorts of terrible things, Schwarzman even comparing his tax policies to the Nazis’ (he later apologized). What’s startling, then, about a television ad suggesting Obama is a socialist whose policies stifle entrepreneurship is that it’s not angry at all—it’s actually sort of a tear-jerker.
The ad, “Freedom to Succeed,” is the handiwork of Thomas Peterffy, a 68-year-old émigré from socialist Hungary who founded Interactive Brokers (IBKR), the world’s largest online broker, and built a fortune of $7.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Peterffy narrates and appears in the ad, which intersperses shots of him as a boy with scenes from the aftermath of Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution. “I grew up in a socialist country, and I know what that does to people,” he says solemnly, as images of poverty and suffering flash by. “There is no hope, no freedom, no pride in achievement. The nation became poorer and poorer.”
The ad is also striking because it essentially takes up the plight of the poor, albeit from an unusual angle. Peterffy argues that Obama makes a practice of “bad-mouthing success,” which demoralizes American entrepreneurs, sapping their drive to succeed and pay the taxes that support the less fortunate. In its own odd way, the ad argues on behalf of the “47 percent,” not against them. So far, he’s spent $2.5 million to air the ad on national cable networks. “By Election Day,” he says, “I’ll spend $5 million to $10 million.”
Unlike the other political billionaires, Peterffy is little-known in Republican circles. He also maintains a cheerfulness even while inveighing against Obama and his party. Asked what prompted his political awakening, he laughs and says, in a thick accent, “The Democratic spokespeople! Politicians have killed the entrepreneurial spirit in this country.”
Peterffy is convinced Obama’s criticism of capitalists has put the country on a path that leads inexorably to socialist Hungary. “It takes mojo to take the risk to start to grow a business. When you trash the leaders, they don’t invest,” he says. “I came here when I was 21. I’ve paid $1.9 billion of taxes in my lifetime. And now I’m being told that I’m not paying my fair share, that I’m playing by different rules.” He adds that he would be happy to pay a higher tax rate. His complaint is that Obama and the Democrats care more about equality of outcome than opportunity. “If all are equal, then why strive?” he asks.
Peterffy has maxed out his donations to Mitt Romney and will vote Republican next month, but he’s hardly a GOP loyalist. He’s called himself “pro-choice” and “pro-environment.” Four years ago, he voted for the Libertarian candidate: “What’s his name? I forgot.” He isn’t giving to any super PAC and says he didn’t consult with the Romney campaign before cutting his own ad.
The response has been overwhelming. “It’s been wonderful,” he says, laughing. “Many people have written to me. And do you know what? A lot of them said they were opening accounts with Interactive Brokers. So it’s helping my business.” He laughs again. “All is not bad.”