Rating the Presidents
Ronald Reagan, 40th President: 1981-1989
Economy: When Reagan was elected in 1980, the economy had nowhere to go but up. High inflation (13%), high interest rates, and slow economic growth had combined to create the dreaded term “stagflation.” Reagan pushed through a broad series of tax cuts in the summer of 1981, which initially provoked an even deeper recession in early 1982, but which in turn tamed inflation and brought about lower interest rates. The taming of inflation and lower interest rates sparked an economic recovery beginning in 1983. By 1984, reelection year, the economy was smoking, but genuine prosperity was mostly confined to those in the higher income brackets. Additionally, despite his promise to reduce the size of the Federal government, spending skyrocketed during the Reagan Era, producing unprecedented deficits. While it was convenient to blame the Democratic controlled Congress for the high deficits, in fact the budgets Congress approved invariably had lower debt/asset ratios than those proposed by the White House. Anxiety over deficits and the savings and loan crisis provoked the Stock Market crash of 1987, but the economy generally continued functioning well. By 1989, however, the near tripling of the national debt had taken its toll and the country headed into another, milder, recession.
Civil Rights: In 1964, Reagan initially opposed the Civil Rights Act as an intrusion of the Federal government into State authority. During his tenure as President, Reagan opposed an expansion of existing civil rights laws, and opposed the creation of new civil rights laws to cover homosexuals. However, he did not roll back existing laws. His appointments to the Supreme Court, particularly Antonin Scalia, generally favored a strict-constructionalist philosophy, which held the Constitution should be interpreted within 18th Century parameters. Two of his appointments, Justices O’Connor and Kennedy, turned out to be more moderate than conservative.
Domestic Affairs: Reagan was painfully slow to respond to the looming AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Money for research into GRID, as it was then known, was painfully scant. Indeed, the Federal Government made no attempt to inform the public about ways to protect themselves from AIDS until 1986, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, acting on his own initiative, sent informational pamphlets to every household in the United States. Far right conservatives were up in arms about Koop’s advocacy of the use of condoms to prevent transmission and demanded Koop’s dismissal. Reagan, despite his own reservations about the mailing, refused to fire Koop. During the 1980s, much of the country’s infrastructure was neglected, which put a greater strain on local and state governments. Despite his philosophy calling for a retreat of Federal power in favor of more local control, Reagan strong armed state governments on several issues. During his second term, he threatened to hold back Federal highway funding to states unless they raised the drinking age to 21, which they promptly did. Reagan ran on an anti-welfare platform, but was unable to work out a deal with Democrats to reform the Welfare system. Welfare would go unreformed until the Clinton Era. Reagan also ran on a platform calling for a return to prayer in public schools and an end to abortion, neither of which happened.
Foreign Affairs: Reagan’s principle goal on taking office was to triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Soviets made the critical mistake of underestimating Reagan as a B-movie actor who would be ineffective in the White House. But Reagan put into place a duel policy of arms buildup (which he called Peace through Strength) and diplomatic pressure, at a time when the older generation of Soviet leaders were dropping like flies. With younger, reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan signed the first ever treaty reducing nuclear arms. His policies were effective, and the Berlin Wall fell eleven months after Reagan left office, with the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union coming two years later. Although the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable given their financial woes, Reagan deserves some credit for accelerating the process and moving history along ahead of itself. Reagan’s Cold War focus tended to push aside other foreign affair priorities, resulting in long term consequences, particularly in the Middle East. The 1982 bombing of marine headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, caused the deaths of 241 marines. Reagan condemned the attacks, but made little effort to bring the bombers to justice or retaliate against their organization. This inaction left the door open for further terrorist actions, culminating in the Al Queda attack on September 11, 2001. He also cozied up to Saddam Hussein in a short sighted attempt to balance influence from Iran. Reagan, despite his image as a trigger happy cowboy, was reluctant to use military force if avoidable. Both the 1984 incursion into Grenada and the 1986 bombing of Libian intelligence headquarters were restrained, small scale operations.
Honesty/Integrity: Although personally an honest man, Reagan’s “hands-off” management style resulted in senior and junior staffers not being adequately monitored. Edwin Meese provided illegal assistance while he was Counselor to the President to the Wedtech Corporation. Interior Secretary James Watt was convicted in a 1980s influence-peddling scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These scandals were overshadowed by the Iran-Contra affair, which for a time threatened to bring down Reagan’s Presidency. It has never been conclusively proven that Reagan had direct knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras. (Reagan’s apparent confusion about which conversations he had at what time have led some to believe that he may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease during his second term.) Reagan cooperated fully with the investigation, and accepted full responsibility for the affair. Just as with the Captain of a ship, the President is ultimately responsible for the actions of those in his administration.
Summary: Ronald Reagan, returned a measure of prestige to the Presidency, which had been battered by corruption (Nixon) and incompetence (Carter). Through the force of his personality, he brought confidence back to an American public which had been demoralized by defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, and runaway inflation. Beyond question, the country as a whole was better off in 1989 than it had been in 1981. These achievements were not without cost or compromise, and it will take generations for the American people to pay down the debt created during his presidency. Despite these shortcomings, Reagan ranks as a better than average President and a true leader who was unafraid to take unpopular stands. He deserves neither the deification dished out by uncritical sycophants, nor the vitriolic condemnation that has been leveled at him by others. During the five years he was in the public eye after leaving office, Reagan was willing to take on his own party over several issues, including the Brady gun control bill. Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Reagan of ten years of elder statesmanship, and it is interesting to speculate how the former President would have reacted to the issues of the time.
Civil Rights 4
Domestic Affairs 3
Foreign Affairs 8