“With bloated bureaucracies and top marginal tax rates at 70% when he entered office, President Reagan also carried in his mind a basic script about overreach of the federal government that resonated with Americans after a decade of stagflation and presidential scandals.”
“Time for Choosing” speech, repudiating “a greater government activity in the affairs of the people” while endorsing ultraconservative Republican nominee Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign.ormer President of the United States Ronald Reagan has rarely, if ever, been considered a friend of progressive politics. Although he started out as a Roosevelt Democrat, President Reagan eventually migrated to the Republican Party. In 1964, he launched himself into the national spotlight with his
Ever since, President Reagan has been seen by progressives as a villain in a story that casts him, among other things, as an opponent of a “Great Society” of active, centralized government; as a warmonger; as a prominent spokesman for the “Southern strategy” which played on racist sentiments to bring the South into the Republican fold; and perhaps most notoriously, as chief spokesman for a “neoliberal” ideology which paved the way for deepening inequalities not only between rich and poor but also between white and black. For race scholars, President Reagan adopted a set of “racist and classist policies” (in the words of anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi) that bears much responsibility for a retrenchment of racial and economic justice over the course of the last half century.
President Reagan is even regarded with some suspicion among conservatives who traditionally have lauded him as an icon who, in the words of M.E. Bradford, “put to rest forever the old axiom that no candidate for the presidency can run as a conservative and be elected.” Former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez notes that President Reagan “is remembered by some on the right now with some dismay because he was the man who signed the biggest amnesty for illegal aliens.”
In an age of Trumpian bravado, economic nationalism, and deep suspicions of immigration and open borders, grassroots supporters of what has become a thoroughly populist and nationalist Republican Party have moved on from regarding President Reagan as the torchbearer for modern conservatism. This is especially so if they are reminded that President Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave amnesty to three million illegal immigrants who had entered the country before 1982.
The Verdict of History
It may come as something of a surprise, then, that President Reagan has steadily improved in rankings of Presidents of the United States in the estimation of prominent historians. In fact, President Reagan stands among the upper tier in several rankings of presidents. For example, a 2021 C-SPAN survey of presidential historians (including eminent historians such as David Kennedy and Sean Wilentz) puts him at ninth. In 2018, a survey of presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists by the Siena College Research Institute ranked President Reagan 13th. In a U.S. News compilation of the worst presidents, President Reagan ranked 37th, which inverts to a ranking of 13th best president. President Reagan also comes in at number nine in a YouGov public opinion poll of most popular presidents among Americans. A Wikipedia roundup of presidential rankings shows similar results, with President Reagan among the top third of presidents in the estimation of historians, political scientists, and public opinion.
Rankings undoubtedly have their limitations, but it is not arbitrary that Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George Washington are invariably in the upper crust of rankings. Similarly, President Reagan deservedly surpasses a considerable majority of past presidents and has only moved up rather than down the rankings over time. What accounts for President Reagan’s reputation?
Pocketbook issues rarely fail to cast a shining light or dark shadow on any administration. In the case of President Reagan, it was “morning in America” again. As Lou Cannon points out in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime:
“In 1980, the year Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter with the battle cry, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ the prime interest rate averaged 15.26 percent, inflation 12.5 percent and civilian unemployment 7.1 percent. For the final year of the Reagan presidency, the comparable figures were 9.32 percent, 4.4 percent and 5.5 percent. The gross national product had nearly doubled and per capita disposable income, highest for whites but higher, too, for black and Hispanics, had increased from $9,722 to $11,326.
Defying periodic predictions of economic downturn, the recovery that began in 1983 continued through Reagan’s second term and carried over into the Bush administration, providing by far the longest peacetime expansion in United States history. Eighteen million new jobs were created. The annual inflation rate, which averaged 12.5 percent in the final year of the Carter presidency, averaged 4.4 percent in 1988. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate had been reduced from 7.1 percent to 5.5 percent and the prime interest rate cut nearly six points to 9.32 percent.”
President Reagan’s success as president, however, was about more than the economy. Discussing the 2018 Siena College Research Institute’s findings, U.S. News explains: “Reagan scored highly for public persuasion skills and setting the national agenda. By working with Congress, Reagan was able to pass legislation that sped economic growth and strengthened national defense, advancing his vision of ‘peace through strength’ in the years leading up to the end of the Cold War.”
When President Reagan came into office, the nation was reeling from double-digit inflation, a decade of stagflation, the shame of Vietnam and Watergate, and the Iranian hostage crisis. It was also embroiled in a tense, ongoing geopolitical conflict with a Cold War superpower well-equipped with nuclear arms and actively involved in a subversive campaign of global communist expansionism.
During his two terms, President Reagan spurred economic prosperity; confronted the Soviet Union with strategic vision, moral clarity, and a defensive buildup that helped induce the election of reformer Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; spearheaded nuclear disarmament efforts that culminated in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and made conservative politics viable again after the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. His sunny personality and clear moral vision proved far more effective at restoring national confidence and securing presidential leadership than the modesty of President Gerald Ford or the aloofness of President Jimmy Carter.
It would be hagiography over historiography to ignore the reality that President Reagan had his share of scandals, shortcomings, and snafus. In the 2021 C-SPAN rankings, President Reagan scored lowest on measures for “administrative skills” and “pursued equal justice for all.” He was far from a perfect president. The misadventures of Oliver North and company that led to the Iran-Contra scandal did not reflect well on President Reagan’s managerial abilities. It should not have taken the death of his friend Rock Hudson to jolt the first family into taking the AIDS crisis seriously. First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign had the right goal, but its efficacy was dubious. The disparity in sentencing of crack and powder cocaine users disproportionately affected African Americans.
It should be noted that the anecdotal evidence about President Reagan’s character makes clear that any negligence on these social issues was unequivocally not animated by discriminatory intent. In addition, it must be noted that “administrative skills” and “pursued equal justice for all” were two of ten criteria by which presidential historians assessed the Reagan presidency. In other words, there are multiple criteria by which we judge a president, not only with respect to his overall reign as president, but also with respect to any specific policy or set of policies developed in response to the contingencies and exigencies that a president inevitably confronts during his tenure.
Criteria are multi-dimensional and multi-faceted, and while they are not arbitrary, they are also not rigorously precise, resulting in assessments of a president that are not seamlessly comparable across presidents from different eras and different contexts. Criteria can even seem anachronistic, turning on the potentially quasi-presentist judgments of historians whose historiographical approaches not only evolve but also may be tainted by ideological inclinations that prevail in their profession.
On net, however, some presidents consistently come out with an overall favorable, even laudable (Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Washington), legacy. Other presidents consistently come out with an overall unfavorable, even egregious (Presidents James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson) legacy. President Reagan falls squarely within the former. Determining the overall legacy of a president involves weighing the central challenges of the era with the overall efficacy of the president’s handling of those challenges. For President Reagan, his ability to restore stability and confidence after decades of unrest and malaise, his decision to stick with Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s inflation-fighting strategy in the midst of a deep recession, and his decision to negotiate with General Secretary Gorbachev are three great accomplishments that will forever enshrine his place as one of America’s great presidents.
Reagan and “Neoliberalism”
President Reagan’s role as the Great Communicator is well-known. He also receives due credit for his successful diplomacy with Soviet leader Gorbachev. It is on social and economic matters, however, that his legacy receives most criticism from progressives. Aside from rising budget deficits during his tenure, President Reagan is often taken to task for allegedly spearheading “neoliberal” policies underlying current social and economic inequality. This criticism, however, is undeserved.
For some 40 years, it is commonly argued, Western nations such as the United States and Great Britain have been ruled by an insidious ideological cabal of neoliberal partisans in government and business who pursued an aggressive agenda of reducing the size of government, lowering taxes, deregulating markets, fostering global trade, and encouraging speculative risk-taking. This “neoliberal” social and economic policy is alleged to have done little more than make the world safe for the plutocratic accumulation of wealth after decades of labor strength and the social democratic politics that prevailed in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The result was to be expected: increasing income and wealth inequality in the United States and the world at large.
A central villain in this narrative is President Reagan, whose rhetorical embrace of “neoliberal” supply-side economics led to policies which reduced tax rates, deregulated markets, and cut government spending at the expense of raising the national debt. This is said to have happened while also enriching Wall Street and leaving the poor to fend for themselves while the rich only got richer. Unfortunately, much of this narrative is hindsight bias.
On deregulation, critics often ignore that the deregulatory push was well underway by the time President Reagan reached the White House, and for good reason. As Lou Cannon points out, the Code of Federal Regulations increased from 54,000 to 100,000 pages during the 1970s, and a 1978 analysis put the cost of regulations on American business at $100 billion annually. Moreover, it was President Carter and Senator Kennedy who were at the forefront of deregulating the airline and trucking industries. Regulations had been stifling the initiative of American industries, and Americans had had enough.
It is true that a central legacy of the Reagan administration was a reduction in marginal tax rates and a large increase in the national debt. But President Reagan also worked with Congress to enact three rounds of tax reform culminating in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which raised the capital gains tax. Moreover, federal expenditures on all major categories (national defense, international affairs, income security, health, Social Security, and Medicare) increased except international affairs. Reductions in government spending were about decreasing the rate of increase rather than absolute reductions in spending.
The question, however, is whether the Reagan administration and its supposed “neoliberal” ideology should take the blame for rising inequality and other social ills that have emerged over a time period that extends well beyond the eight years President Reagan was in office. I have written elsewhere about the scapegoating of an ill-defined “neoliberalism” as the an underlying ideological force driving the upsurge in inequality and instability in the financial system, while arguing that increasing inequality does not mean we are in a new Gilded Age. But while “neoliberalism” is more of a progressive bugbear rather than a concrete ideological consortium of global elites intent on a zero-sum game of wealth accumulation, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 seemed to vindicate the critics of “neoliberalism” who had been lurking in the shadows during the prosperous heyday of liberal democracy and global capitalism in the final decades of the 20th century.
My own views aside, however, a 2016 analysis by Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel shows a “monotonic increase in wage growth across percentiles for both men and women [that] strongly indicates that market fundamentals favoring more skilled workers are the driving force behind rising inequality.” That is, “…the trend toward rising wage disparities (1972-2012) was not unique to the top or bottom of the distribution, but occurred at all skill levels for both men and women,” which “undermine[s] theories that attribute rising inequality to an outbreak of self-dealing conspiracies or rent-seeking among the very rich, while wage growth for everyone else languished.”
More comprehensively, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson summarize “a large literature” on “the increase in inequality that started sometime in the 1970s” demonstrating “that the increase in inequality has taken place throughout the income distribution and that it can be explained reasonably well by changes in the supply and demand for skills and in labor market institutions.”
In other words, “neoliberalism” is a distraction from structural changes in the economy that increased the demand for high-skilled labor across the income distribution and not just for the very top of the distribution. Moreover, the counterfactual is far from clear. Hindsight bias would seem to tell us that the rise of inequality could have been avoided if only President Carter or Vice President Walter Mondale emerged victorious in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections, respectively, or if Margaret Thatcher had never been elected Prime Minister in Great Britain. But policymakers with term limits can rarely change the course of long-run structural changes taking place in the economy.
On October 21, 1984, President Reagan faced off with former Vice President Mondale in the second and final debate of the presidential campaign. During the debate, one of the moderators, Henry Trewhitt, asked President Reagan:
“You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yet, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”
“Not at all,” President Reagan replied with eagerness and equanimity. “And, Mr. Trewhitt, I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign.”
“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The audience, the moderator, and Vice President Mondale himself erupted in laughter. Despite a long and lively debate about foreign policy and military defense, Vice President Mondale apparently remarked afterward that he knew in that moment he had lost the election. Journalist David Broder agreed the next day: “…it may well have been that the biggest barrier to Reagan’s reelection was swept away in that moment.”
This anecdote alone is a ripe illustration of President Reagan’s talents as the Great Communicator. For all the doubts about his intellectual grasp of policy, he possessed an unmatched ability to connect with average Americans as a decent and genial man with a disarming sense of humor, unflinching optimism, and a genuine belief in the principles of free enterprise and honest brokerage.
With bloated bureaucracies and top marginal tax rates at 70% when he entered office, President Reagan also carried in his mind a basic script about overreach of the federal government that resonated with Americans after a decade of stagflation and presidential scandals. His confidence in the United States resonated with Americans after Vietnam, Watergate, political extremism throughout the 1970s (Weathermen, etc.), and hostages in Iran. In his restoration of conservatism, President Reagan surely provoked the ire of the liberal status quo. But, in so doing, he inspired millions of Americans, spurred economic growth, and advanced the cause of world peace. A great president indeed.
Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo.