We heard someone involved in the campaign of a Republican primary candidate recently state that President Obama is “the most radical president in American history.” One is accustomed to hyperbole during an election season, but this was a particularly arresting case of myth-making. I assume this person meant “radical” as a negative, although radical change can be positive or negative. Whether well- or ill-intentioned, though, the claim that our current president is the most radical ever does not hold water. Even an extremely brief glance over presidential history brings to light many other candidates for that title:
George Washington: Radical in a good way. Encouraged a radically new form of government, one without a monarch, even when offered the post himself. Supported our new democratic system, represented it with honor and dignity to the world, and set crucially important precedents, including stepping down from office after his second four-year term. Tried to prevent political parties from forming—if he had been successful, we’d have a radically different political scene today.
Thomas Jefferson: Radical in mixed ways. It’s hard to picture Americans today admiring a president who supported a violent dictatorship and felt the U.S. should provide military support for it (as Jefferson did in France). Jefferson also overrode the Constitution to make the Louisiana Purchase (Congress, not the president, should likely have carried out any geographic expansion).
Andrew Jackson: Radical in a bad way. Sponsored intense corruption within his Administration by appointing cronies to high political office, legislated through the veto, and, most importantly and unforgivably, demanded and carried out the removal of the Native Americans of the southeast, even after the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokees’ remaining on their land.
Abraham Lincoln: Radical in a good way. He ended slavery in the United States by writing the Emancipation Proclamation, and refused to negotiate an end to the war by agreeing to allow slavery to continue in a restored Union. Pushed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. Planned to move an Amendment giving black men the right to vote through Congress as well. Went from racist to abolitionist in a few short years.
Woodrow Wilson: Radical in mixed ways. Promoted legislation to end child labor, pushed for the creation of the League of Nations and for U.S. membership. On the other hand, an entrenched racist who kept civil rights legislation at bay, helping to ensure that the 1910s extended the nadir of civil rights in this country another decade.
Franklin Roosevelt: Radical in mixed ways. Tried to govern bascially without Congress, tried to tamper with the Supreme Court to make it his tool, pursued a series of economic policies that helped lengthen the Depression. On the other hand, he understood that the government had an obligation to protect vulnerable categories of citizen, such as the elderly, children, and the poor. Provided a reliable federal safety net to these people for the first time in U.S. history.
Lyndon Johnson: Radical in a good way. The series of civil rights acts passed not only during his Administration, but because of his untiring efforts, finally put the nation on the track Lincoln had envisioned for Reconstruction. Education reform, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, space exploration, and a war on poverty, all pushed forward by Johnson. His failure to see through the advisors who pushed the war in Vietnam is the blot on his record.
Ronald Reagan: Radical in a bad way. Set in motion the anti-government movement amongst conservatives, made cutting taxes and running a federal deficit a battle-cry of the Republican party, was generally unmoved by opportunities to negotiate an end to the Cold War.
George W. Bush: Radical in a bad way. Pursued war with Iraq based on misinformation about Iraqi arms manufacture from advisors, trampled on civil rights in the name of homeland security, and moved aggressively to stop taxation of the wealthy, immobilize the federal government, remove the federal safety net for vulnerable citizens, and pay for the war through deficit spending.
So there’s a short list of some radical presidents. We could use a few more who are radical in good ways.