An interesting new study from political scientists Keith Poole and Christopher Hare at the University of Georgia finds that Barack Obama is the most conservative Democratic President of the modern era. Using a modified version of DW-NOMINATE scores, the duo find that Democratic Presidents have gotten moderately more conservative over the past several decades, while Republican Presidents have gotten radically more conservative. As a result, the ideology of the nation’s Presidents has inexorably moved to the right.

The move for Obama in this regard is slight but statistically recognizable. And the political scientists answer what may arise as criticism of their work:

Because presidential estimates are based on a limited number of “presidential support” votes – roll calls on which the president clearly indicates his support or opposition to a particular (often contentious) measure, presidential ideal points are somewhat biased towards the ideological extremes (however, this effect is roughly constant for all presidents, so it is unlikely than any particular estimate would be affected more than others).

Our findings here echo those discussed in a prior post that Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats to the left in the contemporary period. Indeed, as seen below, President Obama is the most moderate Democratic president since the end of World War II, while President George W. Bush was the most conservative president in the post-war era.

As you can see in the chart, President Obama sits at around 0.3 on the liberal scale, while President George W. Bush sits at around 0.7. And on a number of issues, Mitt Romney’s public positions taken in the campaign are actually far more conservative than Bush – in particular immigration and federal spending – so if Romney were to win in November, it’s possible that this trend will continue.

A cynic would argue that the country has gotten more conservative, and that Presidents are just moving with the country, by way of trying to get ahead of the parade. I’m not sure I believe that, given the progressive bent of the country on an individual issue-by-issue basis. The country supports increased financial regulation, progressive taxation, a public option for health care, and a host of other more liberal issues.

I think this can be reconciled by looking at the nature of US Presidential elections. A candidate must appeal to a narrow, wealthy fundraising base with a particular set of interests, that necessarily move them in a more conservative direction. Maybe that’s not the only reason, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the conservative outcomes from this drift of conservatism line up with corporate America and the extremely wealthy.

David Dayen

David Dayen