In politics, a “fat cat” is a rich and influential person, usually one who donates generously to political campaigns.
Typically, “fat cat” refers to an executive whose earnings vastly exceed those of the average American. The expression suggests that the person is bloated and slightly grotesque, like a cat who’s been over-eating for years and has become grossly overweight.
The phrase “fat cat” was in use by the 1920s in America; Merriam Webster claims that the term was first used in 1928. However, others claim that an article in the Baltimore Sun in 1925 grumbled about “fat cats” as early as 1925. The article read, in part,
“It ought perhaps to be explained that Fat Cat is the significant and revealing name in political circles for the sleek, rich fellows who enter politics for one reason or another and depend for their standing and success upon the liberality with which they shell out the dollars.”
The term “fat cat” often gets thrown around by politicians and pundits who are looking for a way to rebuke their political enemies. In 2009, then-president Obama used the term to describe bankers who were opposed to his proposed financial regulations.
“I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” Obama told 60 Minutes. He added, “the people on Wall Street still don’t get it. They’re still puzzled why it is that people are mad at the banks. Well, let’s see. You guys are drawing down $10 (million), $20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year in decades and you guys caused the problem.”
Just a few years later, though, Obama himself was being described as a “fat cat.” Headlines pointed out that after leaving office, Obama had charged as much as $400,000 for a single speaking engagement. He was speaking at a Wall Street conference organized by the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Eventually, Obama seemed to apologize for calling bankers fat cats, telling the New York Times, “it hurt their feelings. I would have some of them say to me, ‘You know, my son came home and asked me, ‘Am I a fat cat?”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly slammed Hillary Clinton as a “fat cat.” Trump told NBC’s Meet the Press that Clinton was going overboard in her fundraising effort and that she had sold out to Wall Street: “[Clinton] is selling herself to Wall Street, and the Wall Street fat cats are putting up a lot of money for her,” Trump said, pointing out that his campaign had no such need to fundraise.
A few years later, of course, critics of President Trump mocked him as a “fat cat.” This was a popular theme with political cartoonists and columnists. One cartoonist drew the president as a portly orange cat wearing a yellow hairpiece. Another created merchandise satirizing Dr Seuss’s famous “cat in the hat;” the president was depicted as a fat cat in a blue suit and a MAGA hat.