There is usually great debate when discussing whether Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson was a better president during the Progressive era. In order to make an educated conclusion on who was the best, though, we must first define progressivism. Progressivism is the political orientation of those who favor progress toward better conditions in government and society. With this in mind, although it may seem like the competition is neck and neck, we can conclude that Theodore Roosevelt was ultimately the better progressive president.
Roosevelt, the successor to the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated, was whom it all began with. He focused primarily on advocating conservation and antitrust reforms in order to restore power to the federal government so that it could regulate business. He was also responsible for the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act as well as the Meat Inspection Act that proved beneficial to the health of U.S. citizens.
As for diplomacy, Roosevelt’s charismatic appeal helped mend ties with Japan in order to maintain an Open Door policy and negotiated with the Panamanians for the permission to build a canal that would not only reduce travel time by boat, but also greatly increase the U.S. Navy’s power. His intentions of bettering the United States surely proved effective.
To be fair, President Woodrow Wilson also had various progressive ideas, but he had a different way of approaching them. Wilson opposed big government and endorsed states’ rights during his campaign, but worked to strengthen presidential power to achieve banking reform and to accomplish the Democratic agenda. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was easily his most significant legislation, but he also supported the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, which was the kind of federal regulatory agency that Roosevelt had advocated in his New Nationalism platform. However, once the stock of ideas that made up the New Freedom were exhausted, he declared that the progressive movement had fulfilled its mission. He then refused to support child labor legislation, woman suffrage, and the provision of farm credits for nonperishable crops. Had it not been for the fact that he wanted to win reelection by capturing votes from former Bull Moose progressives, reform might have ended in 1913.
Going back to the definition of the word progressivism, Roosevelt fits the description better because he truly favored progress in the conditions of the U.S. unlike Wilson who was unsure of exactly what it was that he wanted to do and only returned to progressivism to gain popularity around election time. According to this definition, one can clearly conclude that Theodore Roosevelt was the most progressive president.