Most Liberal/Conservative Presidents

I was having an argument with a friend recently over the relative liberalness of a few separate American presidents, and we couldn’t come to an agreement on the most liberal. My take was FDR, for the obvious reason of the new deal, but my friend argued that FDR’s vision wasn’t inherent to his political views but rather a necessary reaction to the great depression. So I put it to you: Who were the most liberal and conservative American Presidents?

It’s hard to judge someone who was president before, or dead, before I was born. I therefore should not comment on anyone who was not president before 1960.

I will make an exception for FDR. He was very far to the left, in fact, he was a socialist, whose policies and actions continue to harm this country to this day. I vote FDR as most liberal, LBJ second. Clinton was not as liberal as them, but he was not the moderate he and the media tried to project. I’d put Clinton in the top 10 of all time, but not the top 5.

Someone here is going to come along and claim Nixon was a conservative! Bull! He was only moderate at best.

Reagan was probably the most conservative in this century, though I’ve read about Taft and Hoover I can’t comment because I wasn’t around then.

FDR, a socialist? Wow, that’s pretty heavy. I don’t know, or doubt, that. But what of his policies are harming us today? We’ve been through some pretty conservative presidents who should have been able to fix that by now.

The terms “Liberal” and “Conservative”, as we use them today, are mainly meaningless discussing people in their graves for over a century.

Jefferson, for example, was practically a radical in his days, but his views of state’s rights and lassiez-faire economics would mark him as a reactionary in the twenty-first century.

That said, it’s still a fun game to play. The most liberal presidents were Jackson and FDR, due to their expansion of the federal government’s powers, with Lincoln coming in at second. FDR wasn’t a socialist, not really, if it wasn’t for his social programs, this country may have been convivnced to give actual socialism (or facism!) a try.

The most conservative president is hard to pin down, since, by definition, they try to limit government powers and are therefore not as memorable as more dynamic liberals. To that end, I nominate Washington and Coolidge, two gents who did their best to do nothing.

The question assumes that there exists a coherent and internally consistent politics known as “liberal” and another, opposing one known as “conservative”.


I agree with AHunter. We have to define which area we’re talking about – social policy, foreign affairs, role of government, etc.

In foreign affairs, I’d have to nominate Wilson as the most liberal (at least in the 20th Century, Monroe might have been the most liberal in the 19th) but he also allowed restriction of individual liberties. As a natural reaction, Harding could probably be described as the most conservative in foreign policy.

The same pattern holds with social policy and role of government. For T. Roosevelt’s yin, there was Tafts yang. Roosevelt begat Eisenhower, Reagan begat Clinton, etc.

You would think that these folks who label FDR as a Socialist had never used a public library or made use of police and fire departments. These are all “socialist” in nature.

FDR literally saved people from starvation at the time of the Great Depression and the dust bowl.

I think that LBJ was probably the most liberal in his accomplishments. He reached some of those “New Frontiers” that Kennedy had in mind.

If government involvment in our lives is going to be how we measure who is liberal and who is not, then George W. Bush would have to be labelled a liberal!

Let’s see now, by CURRENT definitions, a “liberal” is a peacenik and a “conservative” is a hawk on foreign policy, right? So, I guess Franklin Roosevelt was a conservative, and his isolationist Republican adversaries were liberals, right?

What else… oh, liberals favor a strong, powerful activist federal government, while conservatives favor “states’ rights,” smaller government, and localized decision making. So, John Adams was obviously a liberal, and Thomas Jefferson was a conservative.

And liberals generally favor protectionism, while conservatives are pro-business and supprot free trade… though not so very long ago, the positions of “the left” and “the right” were exactly the opposite on this issue.

Get the idea? You can’t simply take today’s loose definitions of liberal and conservative and force statesmen of the past into those definitions.

And even if you could, consider this: in 1942, both George McGovern and Ronald Reagan identified themselves as New Deal liberal Democrats. That is, in 1942, Regana and McGovern agreed on almost all the important issues of the day. By 1972, of course, they agreed on almost NONE of the important issues of the day. Now, how do we know which of them represented the “real” ideals of FDR? We don’t know! We can’t! The issues of 1972 were very different from those of 1942, and we can’t say with any certainty where FDR would have stood on most of them.

Wilson was the champion of the League of Nations and the rights of men. Unless their skin was colored. He was the most adamantly racist president of the 20th century. Does this make him a liberal or conservative? (I vote conservative.)

FDR was completely opposed to what became the US welfare system by the 1970s. He thought people should have to do work to earn money. Hardly a socialist. More conservative than Nixon in this respect. (Nixon is the one who created the modern US welfare state. “Keep 'em on welfare so they won’t riot” point of view.) So-called liberal Clinton was the first person to undo Nixon’s system.

LBJ has from a strong conservative background. One of the most conservative presidents of the 20th century. Keep in mind that “The Great Society” was more FDR-like: short term aid to move people up, rather than Nixon-like, long-term aid to keep people pacified. Not that liberal of a program. But he was the guy who forced thru the voting rights acts.

People are not one-dimensional. The political spectrum is not one-dimensional.

(I love the fact that so many people have pointed out how what’s conservative or liberal changes all the time. Pat Buchanan ran for president as an isolationist. Not any more.)

It would be better if you said Left vs. Right wing. Liberal and Conservative have very slipery meanings.

Wilson was very racist, and was opposed to Suffrage, but in economic and world affairs, one of the most progressive leaders we have had. During WWI he did limit civil liberties almost as much as Lincoln. If you say those aspects balance each other out, I would rate him as an economic/international libral, but social conservitive.