His presidency is highly regarded by historians. But how conservative was the Republican from Kansas?
Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the more popular presidents in U.S. history. He maintained high approval ratings throughout his tenure as Commander in Chief, averaging approximately 65%. In recent decades, it has become difficult for presidents to reach even 50% in average approval rating. This was largely because Mr. Eisenhower made few enemies. Mr. Eisenhower was extremely moderate for a Republican, and he even coined the term “modern Republicanism” in an effort to shift the party away from strict conservatism. His efforts were, thus, successful in many respects, and he took the country in a progressive direction in a number of ways.
Eisenhower continued New Deal agencies. Eisenhower criticized President Truman’s “Fair Deal” proposals harshly, and rightly so. However, Mr. Eisenhower was strongly in favor of the New Deal, which effectively created a welfare state. When it came to welfare, he was a bleeding heart liberal. He created an entire department at the cabinet level devoted to welfare: the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He also heavily increased tax-payer funding for the Federal Housing Administration, subsidizing the purchases of new homes for low-income Americans.
Eisenhower expanded Social Security. There is a consensus, even in right-leaning circles, that Social Security needs to exist in one form or another. Conservatives generally support privatizing the program, while progressives support leaving government in total control. President Eisenhower favored the latter; he expanded the old age and survivor’s insurance across many demographics that were not previously eligible, increased benefits for the disabled and other groups, and lowered the retirement age for women.
Eisenhower raised the federal minimum wage. President Eisenhower signed a bill raising the minimum wage from 75 cents per hour to $1 per hour – a 33% increase. Having a minimum wage, at all, is in conflict with conservative ideals. Raising the minimum wage is just blasphemous. But President Eisenhower didn’t care much for these principles; he was a populist, not a conservative.
Eisenhower invested billions into infrastructure. Federally funding infrastructure is not always a point of contention, even between conservatives and progressives. Many conservatives do not believe the free market will produce interstate highways and the like, so federally funding infrastructure is not necessarily always at odds with conservatism. However, funding excessively massive expenditures is. In 1956, Mr. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid-Highway Act to construct a 42,000-mile interstate, which, by the end of its completion in 1993, cost the government $130 billion.
Under Eisenhower, the highest marginal income tax rate was 91%. This rate applied to all individuals who made more than $200,000 a year, and Mr. Eisenhower never once proposed to reduce it. Even liberal Democrats would be against a tax this high. Lyndon B. Johnson, of all people, was the president who finally cut it, reducing the highest tax bracket to 70%. For perspective, the top marginal tax rate currently sits at 39.6%, and conservatives would like to see it drop further. A 91% marginal tax rate is something President Eisenhower should have worked to lower.
As testament to his moderate leanings, here is a quote from President Eisenhower written in a letter to his conservative brother:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
President Eisenhower is traditionally regarded as one of our better presidents. He was strong on foreign policy and beloved by a majority of Americans. He worked well with Congress and was able to maintain balanced budgets, even seeing surpluses in 1956 and 1957. Mr. Eisenhower was a decent president, but he still falls well below Ronald Reagan (who I also critiqued recently) and others, in terms of conservatism.