There were many nods of approval in the Simi Valley, California offices of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute when a recent poll found that the public still considers Ronald Reagan to be its favourite modern president.
Reagan is without a doubt highly regarded by the majority of Americans. Just ahead of Abraham Lincoln, he was named the greatest president of all time in a 2001 poll. Some of the other positions in the top ten, such as Bill Clinton’s (3) victory over George Washington’s (7), don’t appear likely to hold over the long run.
According to some political experts, Reagan also resurrected the Republican party, which had fallen into chaos following the Nixon administration’s scandals. He formed a strong coalition with Southerners, workers, business owners, and religious conservatives that helped the Republicans win three elections in the 1980s.
Reagan, known as the “Great Communicator,” was a very effective public speaker. He was a master of the sound bite and used TV appearances to gain support for his projects and win over voters.
Reagan did have some positive accomplishments. The first woman was appointed by Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court. He approved the bill establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. He signed a nuclear weapons deal and defrosted ties with the Soviet Union. He had a fantastic sense of humor and was friendly and welcoming.
Reagan’s presidency, however, resists simple classification. How do you rate a person who, at a White House reception, couldn’t identify his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development but could tell right away from Gorbachev’s smile that this Soviet leader was unique? Or how do you reconcile the inspiring leadership Reagan displayed when he proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin with the moral obscurantism he displayed when he insisted that both the SS troops and the Jews killed in the Holocaust were victims of Hitler’s tyranny?
In many ways, Reagan was much less outstanding than he was average at best. He had relatively little academic prowess, which he applied carelessly. His grin and soothing rhetoric, which he honed as an actor and a spokesperson for General Electric, were what most impressed many people.
The Failures and Negative Effects of Reagan’s Presidency
Political figures like Ronald Reagan tend to divide people. To his fans, he was a giant—a US president who ended an age of large government, won the cold war, and gave the country a sense of direction. He was viewed as a fool by his detractors, an elderly man who pampered tinhorn tyrants while allowing the US deficit and wealth inequality to soar.
Reagan’s two terms in office helped to solidify and personify America’s political rightward shift. His leadership of that political movement in America will go on as his most enduring legacy. Since then, the term “liberal” has been used by Republicans as something bad. The conservative turned into the moderate. The center of the road things were moved to the left.
Just a few hours after Reagan passed away at age 93, Ronald W. Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told BET.com, “It is fair to say that Ronald Reagan was an anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda.”
In the book, White Nationalism/Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community,Walters makes the case that George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 secured the radical Conservative wing of the Republican party’s dominance of American politics, a project that had been started when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980.
The ability to implement change is emphasized in most evaluations of presidential success. A President is typically viewed as successful if they can make a significant impact on American politics. To evaluate the changes Ronald Reagan brought about in American politics, two very different but complementary perspectives are used in The New Politics of Old Values by John Kenneth White and The Reagan Legacy, edited by Charles O. Jones. The impact of Reagan on the public philosophy of the country is discussed in White’s book in an interpretive manner. A collection of research examining Reagan’s impact on political conduct, public policy, and national policy-making institutions can be found in the Jones volume.
White investigates Reagan’s influence on the political agenda and people’s views toward politics in The New Politics of Old Values. White makes the argument that Reagan’s success in changing the political agenda is strongly related to his ability to situate himself and his programs within the context of traditional American ideals using survey data and several stories taken from popular culture. To explain what might be referred to as the paradox of the Reagan presidency—a President known for a detached, lackadaisical style of management, whose administration was marred by scandal, and whose policies did not enjoy widespread public support—White emphasizes the significance of Reagan’s values which were able to change the political landscape of the country.
Reagan’s fiscal policies, which were centred on a significant tax cut and a significant military buildup, have contributed to the destruction of significant economic sectors by widening already enormous budget deficits. Numerous rural banks have been put out of business, dozens of other businesses that interact with farmers have collapsed, and thousands of families have most dramatically and permanently departed their farms. Years after the Reagan Presidency ended, the Midwest states would be plagued by the farm belt’s debt issue.
In addition, 40% of income taxes were used to pay the interest on the national debt, which is currently in the trillions and was mostly accumulated during the Reagan years. And despite the White House’s support for measures to cut annual deficits (via the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill), economists predict that the economy will be burdened by the enormous amount of debt for a very long time. This cost is likely to keep interest rates abnormally high, distort the dollar’s value, make it harder for American businesses to compete with foreign firms, and limit the government’s ability to assist the unemployed and the impoverished.
Ronald Reagan once referred to African United Nations members as “monkeys” who “still feel uncomfortable wearing shoes” in a conversation with Richard Nixon which was described by historian Timothy Naftali in an article in The Atlantic. In contrast to Taiwan, which had held the seat since the UN’s founding in 1945, African countries who voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the country’s legitimate government infuriated Reagan.
It is challenging to look past the words themselves and concentrate on the worldview they reflected because of how overtly racist the remarks were. Reagan and Nixon were stating their opinion that the African delegates’ ethnic heritage deemed them ineligible for involvement in international affairs, an opinion that inexorably has an impact on the rights of black people in the United States.
Reagan asserted that those who commit violent crimes “are not desperate folks seeking bread for their families; crime is the way they’ve chosen to live” in an address to the International Chiefs of Police on September 28, 1981.
This mentality ignored the glaring truths that underlie crime, particularly the nation’s poverty and discrimination-based culture. Between 1981 and 1989, violent crime nationally climbed by 21%. Billions of money were wasted on the “War on Drugs,” which also increased drug-related criminality and was used a vehicle for clandestine wars.
For an unprecedented six years straight, Reagan raised the defence spending. Due to these expenditures, the defence sector experienced an unsustainable bubble that necessitated decades of reform. Early in the 1990s, the defence industry had too many factories and employees for its lower budgets to support. For instance, the US government had 50 significant defence suppliers at the beginning of the 1980s. There were five by 2004.
Reagan ran for president in 1980 and promised to balance the federal budget, but during his eight years in office, he never did. When he started an office in 1981, the federal debt was $994 billion; by the end of his second term, in 1989, it had increased to $1.86 trillion. Additionally, Reagan increased trade restrictions more than any other president since Hoover in 1930. The percentage of US imports that were subject to trade restrictions rose from 12% in 1980 to 23% in 1988.
During his two terms in office, Reagan decreased the Department of Education’s budget by 19% and reduced federal help to schools by more than $1 billion. Reagan made it a point to call the Department of Education a “bureaucratic boondoggle” during his campaign. Due to a lack of Congressional backing, he gave up on this promise in 1983 after making sporadic attempts.
Reagan, who once declared that “trees produce more pollution than automobiles do,” gave leases for the extraction of oil, gas, and coal on tens of millions of acres of public lands. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was headed up by Anne Gorsuch, a Reagan appointee who attempted to repeal the Clean Water Act of 1972, reduced EPA funding by 25% and bungled a $1.6 billion effort to clean up hazardous waste dumps.
Reagan betrayed his promises to avoid doing business with terrorists or nations that supported them. Reagan’s administration circumvented congressional prohibitions on assisting the Contra guerilla combatants in Nicaragua in the “Iran-Contra” controversy, in part by channelling funds from the sale of missiles to Iran to them. Reagan also started military operations in Lebanon, Libya, Grenada, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Reagan gave the spreading AIDS epidemic all but scant attention. Reagan didn’t officially address the AIDS pandemic until May 31, 1987, when he gave a speech at an AIDS conference in Washington, DC, even though the first case was found in the early 1980s. By that point, 20,849 people had passed away and 36,058 Americans had received a diagnosis of the illness.
Reagan dismissed the 12,176 air traffic controllers (PATCO) who were on strike on August 3, 1981, ordering them back to work despite their complaints about stress, a lack of staff, and antiquated equipment. One of the few unions that supported Reagan in the 1980 election was PATCO. Reagan gave them just 48 hours to call off the strike as payback before permanently excluding them from working for the federal government. It took President Bill Clinton until 1993 to repeal the restriction.
According to Reagan, rampant freeloading undermined social and welfare services. Reagan reduced funding for initiatives like food stamps and subsidized housing during his first term, which caused the poverty rate to increase to 15% and the unemployment rate to increase to 7% from 7%.
Reagan’s “voodoo” economic strategy, which held that tax cuts would somehow raise tax receipts, was unable to account for the exorbitant expenditure of his administration, which rose from $591 billion in 1980 to $1.2 trillion in 1990. Reagan altered taxes in both directions. Middle-class families with kids paid 9.5% in payroll taxes and 8.2% in income taxes in 1980. By 1988, their income tax had decreased to 6.6%, while their payroll tax had increased to 11.8%, representing a total tax rise. Reagan advocated for $165 billion in additional Social Security taxes over seven years.
Reagan fought against numerous crucial civil rights laws, further alienating himself and the Republican Party from African-Americans. Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act on March 16, 1988. He opposed expanding the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s provisions. At first, he was against declaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a public holiday. He also had allegiance to South Africa during the apartheid era, viewing it as a friend and ally.
Reagan decreased the budgets of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development by 40%, Commerce by 32%, Agriculture by 24%, Education by 19%, and Transportation by 18% during his two years as president, while the Department of Defense’s budget was never reduced.
He connected the downfall of the country to government in his inauguration address. According to his assertion, the economic crisis of the 1970s was “proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unneeded and excessive growth of government.” According to Reagan, social programmes wasted money claiming they enticed families into dependency, which is worse.
In other words, Reagan believed that families that need help the most should receive the least assistance from the government. It was a concept that endured through Republican administrations and developed into a national ethic. Attacks against social services framed poverty as a moral failing and took advantage of racist prejudices to portray social welfare as a draw for lazy, unsuccessful, and criminal Americans.
Conservatives were finally able to start tearing down the New Deal state and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society under Reagan. More than $22 billion in changes to social welfare programmes were imposed by Reagan in 1981 and 1982, including cuts to federal student loans and the modest Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which compensated companies to hire and train people from underprivileged backgrounds.
The poor were only made poorer by Reagan’s welfare policies. Six million more Americans entered poverty in 1980, the year that a three-year recession began. Although employment had rebounded by 1989, employees were still at risk of hardship due to a lacklustre social safety net in the event of an accident or illness.
For addressing the structural issues of America’s dependence on foreign oil, environmental deterioration, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation—all of which Reagan mostly disregarded and which now pose a threat to the country’s future. Nixon, Ford, and Carter have received little appreciation for their contributions in these areas. Nixon opened the diplomatic door to communist China, mandated energy conservation measures, and assisted in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Nixon administration also recognized the Soviet Union’s waning strength and promoted a detente policy (a plan for bringing the Cold War to an end or at least curbing its most dangerous excesses).
Ford carried on many of Nixon’s initiatives after his resignation due to the Watergate incident, especially his efforts to end the Cold War with Moscow. Ford, however, abandoned “detente” in 1976 after facing a mutiny from Reagan’s Republican Right. Ford also allowed the CIA’s analytical section to come under pressure from hard-line Cold Warriors (as well as a first wave of young intellectuals who later came to be known as neoconservatives or “neocons”), and he hired a new generation of hard-liners, notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
By 1980, Reagan led Americans away from the difficult decisions that Nixon, Ford, and Carter had laid out by focusing on other issues. Reagan persuaded millions of Americans that the threats they faced were: African-American “welfare queens,” Central American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government. Reagan did this with his outwardly sunny disposition and a ruthless political strategy of exploiting white-male resentment.
Reagan purposefully filled the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency with individuals who opposed environmental protection regulations. George W. Bush carried on the Reagan-era Republican opposition to scientific warnings of impending environmental catastrophes.
In an experiment is known as “supply side” economics, which asserted mistakenly that cutting rates for the wealthy would generate revenues and end the government deficit, Reagan pushed for the deregulation of businesses, particularly the banking sector. He also lowered income taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
Reagan’s supporters, including many mainstream journalists, continue to insist that Reagan should be remembered as a great president because he “won the Cold War,” a catchphrase they like to affix to his historical biography, despite admitting that some of his economic plans did not turn out as intended.
But there is a compelling argument that the Cold War was won long before Reagan took office. The U.S. intelligence community had a widespread belief in the 1970s that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was coming to an end, in large part because the Soviet economic model had failed in the fight for technological superiority with the West.
Many “Kremlinologists” in the CIA’s analytical section held such an opinion. The Soviet Union was not storming toward world supremacy, as Reagan and his foreign policy team asserted in the early 1980s, but rather was on the verge of collapse, according to some of the CIA’s top spies operating inside the Soviet hierarchy, according to a senior CIA operations official. The detente that Nixon and Ford initiated, essentially seeking a negotiated resolution to the most hazardous lingering issues of the Cold War, was founded on the CIA study.
Reagan’s violent policy of backing right-wing militaries in foreign countries to put down student, labour, and peasant revolutions left the area with an anti-American heritage that is again reviving with the rise of populist leftist regimes.
For instance, the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, whom Ronald Reagan once referred to as a “dictator in designer spectacles,” regained power. The elections in El Salvador were won by the Marxist FMLN. Indeed, antipathy toward the United States is now the norm throughout Central America, giving opportunities for influence to China, Iran, Cuba, and other American adversaries.
Reagan also established the credentials of a new generation of neocon intellectuals in the early 1980s. These individuals invented the idea of “perception management,” which involved influencing how Americans perceived, comprehended, and reacted to dangers from outside.
When they opposed the fabrications and deceptions of the Reagan administration, many honourable journalists saw their careers suffer. Similarly to this, U.S. intelligence experts who defied orders to submit to propaganda from above were fired. Reagan and his lieutenants created resentment toward anyone who questioned the time’s feel-good optimism to silence criticism.
A right-wing infrastructure also developed under Reagan, connecting media outlets (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) with wealthy think tanks that produced a continuous stream of op-eds and academic papers. Additionally, there were attack squads that targeted mainstream journalists who dared to reveal details that undermined Reagan’s propaganda tenets.
Reagan’s team effectively produced a false world for the American people. Conflicts between rich oligarchs and poor peasants in Central America turned into East-West confrontations. The corrupt, violent, and frequently drug-impaired insurgents supported by the United States in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan were converted into valiant “freedom fighters.”
Reagan also revived Richard Nixon’s conception of an imperial administration that could disregard the law and dodge accountability through criminal cover-ups with the Iran-Contra incident. This behaviour would also reappear in George W. Bush’s war crimes. [Read Robert Parry’s History and Secrecy & Privilege for more information on Reagan’s misdeeds.]
Wall Street Greed
Reagan’s presidency also saw a dimming of the American Dream. While he pretended to be the kind-hearted grandfather of the country, his agents worked to further polarize the populace by utilizing “wedge issues” to intensify resentments, particularly among white men who were urged to consider themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination” and “political correctness.”
However, even as white working-class males (sometimes known as “Reagan Democrats”) rallied behind the Republican Party, their economic interests were being attacked. The use of drugs by young people was on the rise, unions were destroyed and sidelined, “free trade” policies sent manufacturing jobs abroad, old neighbourhoods were deteriorating, and so on.
In the meantime, Wall Street experienced unprecedented levels of greed, which weakened the traditional ties between business owners and employees. CEOs of large corporations used to make less than 50 times what the ordinary worker made before Reagan. The average CEO income was more than 100 times that of the average worker by the end of the Reagan-Bush I administration in 1993. (That CEO remuneration was more than 250 times the income of the ordinary worker at the end of the Bush II presidency.)
Other Factors That Made Reagan a Dreadful President
- Reagan still provided Saddam Hussein with weapons during the Iran-Iraq war even though it was well known that Iraq was employing chemical weapons on civilian populations in violation of international law. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill almost 5,000 Kurdish civilians in Iraq. Even a UN resolution denouncing Iraq was vetoed by Reagan. (The New York Times: The US Secretly Aided Iraq Early in Its War Against Iran.)
- Reagan illegally provided both sides in the Iran-Iraq War with weapons. In clear violation of a statute that he had signed, Reagan armed Iran during the Iran-Iraq War at the same time that he was arming Iraq.
- Reagan gave in to terrorists’ demands. Reagan gave Iran weaponry in exchange for the release of several Americans who had been taken captive by terrorists in Lebanon. Despite this acquiescence, more hostages were ultimately seized.
- Reagan once more gave in to terrorist demands. A terrorist truck bomb murdered 241 American Marines after Reagan dispatched Marines to Beirut for a peacekeeping operation. Reagan’s response was to promptly remove all the troops from Beirut, which was exactly what the terrorists demanded. (Foreign Policy: When Reagan Cut and Run)
- Reagan spoke with Nicaraguan rebels in defiance of legislation he had signed. Reagan supported a democratically elected government’s violent overthrow. Even though they slaughtered civilians and sought to destroy the democratically elected government to reinstate the dictatorship that had previously been in place in Nicaragua, he illegally supported the Nicaraguan Contras, whom he referred to as “Freedom Fighters.” Reagan gives the CIA the go-ahead to launch the Contras, according to History.com.
- Reagan started a needless war to draw attention away from his Beirut failure. He ordered an invasion on the island of Grenada to drive out Cuban soldiers there only a few days after the bombing in Beirut that claimed the lives of 241 Marines.
- Reagan was unsuccessful in protecting the US from Saddam Hussein. Reagan took no action in response to an attack on a U.S. Navy ship by an Iraqi fighter jet in 1987 that resulted in the deaths of 37 Americans. The only non-aligned nation to strike a U.S. warship without reprisal is still Iraq.
- Reagan aided in establishing Al Qaeda. The Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan were given weapons and assistance by the Reagan administration. Like Osama bin Laden, other Mujahideen militants drew on their experiences in Afghanistan to help them create the terrorist group Al Qaeda.
- Reagan backed South Africa’s racist, the apartheid government. To put pressure on South Africa to abolish apartheid, the U.S. Congress unanimously enacted the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 when the White minority in South Africa ruthlessly suppressed the Black majority, even denying them the right to vote. Reagan, however, rejected that bill and opposed any penalties against South Africa. His veto had to be overridden by Congress. (House overcomes Reagan apartheid veto, POLITICO, September 29, 1986. )
- As long as he didn’t regard them as “Communists,” Reagan supported some of the world’s most brutal autocrats. He backed Manuel Noriega, the autocrat of Panama. Later, when Noriega developed a close relationship with Fidel Castro, Reagan suddenly viewed him as an enemy and deposed him. Even after Ferdinand Marcos assassinated his political adversary and rigged his re-election, he continued to support the dictator of the Philippines. Even though it was well known that the ruthless El Salvadorian government was killing civilians, including Americans, he continued to support it.
- Compared to other presidents in American history, Reagan’s administration had the most documented corruption. At least 138 individuals of the Reagan administration, including numerous cabinet members, were either under investigation, found guilty, or both. This is the most of any American President. Before they were ever put on trial, many of them received pardons from Reagan or President Bush.
- Edwin Meese, the attorney general, resigned following a corruption investigation.
- Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defence, was charged with offences related to the Iran-Contra scandal but was later pardoned.
- Elliot Abrams, the assistant secretary of state, was pardoned by President Bush after pleading guilty to offences related to the Iran-Contra scandal.
- John Poindexter and Robert MacFarlane, two national security advisers, were pardoned after pleading guilty to offences related to the Iran-Contra scandal.
- Alan Fiers, Clair George, and Joseph Fernandez, three senior CIA officers, were found guilty of crimes related to the Iran-Contra scandal and were granted pardons.
- At least nine Reagan appointees were found guilty of obstruction of justice, lying to Congress, and/or perjury.
- Reagan repeated lies frequently, even after they were proven to be false.
- He recounted his experiences as a U.S. Army photographer tasked with documenting Nazi concentration camps. However, Reagan didn’t go to or record any such camps.
- He frequently recounted the tale of a “Chicago Welfare Queen” who used 80 aliases and received $150,000 in welfare payments but no such person existed. Reagan persisted in sharing the false version of the events, nevertheless.
- He made the wildly false claim that trees produce more pollution than cars, which he conjured up out of thin air.
- Reagan’s policies permitted tens of thousands of family farms to cease operations or file for bankruptcy. According to some sources, throughout the 1980s, nearly one-third of all farms were in danger of going into foreclosure. A farm credit bill that would have provided farmers with some assistance was vetoed by Reagan. When discussing the export of grain to other nations, Reagan once joked that he would prefer to “keep the grain and export the farmers,” a sign of how low his support among farmers had fallen.
- The Savings and Loan Industry collapsed as a result of Reagan’s financial policies. Reagan’s tax code modifications and financial deregulation ultimately led to the failure of roughly 750 separate financial organizations.
- To cover his budgetary shortfalls, Reagan stole from the Social Security Trust Fund. The government’s tax collection was so low after Reagan reduced taxes for the wealthy that the budget deficit doubled from what it had been under Jimmy Carter. To cover the nation’s expenses, Reagan “borrowed” hundreds of billions of dollars from the Social Security trust fund. That money was never reimbursed.
- Only 2% of the federal judicial appointments made by Reagan were black.
- Reagan defended racism by using phrases like “welfare queens” to refer to poor, black women.
- Reagan made an effort to obtain a tax break for South Carolina’s segregated Bob Jones University.
- Reagan defended the “sincerity” of former senator Jesse Helms when the enemy of black interests cast doubt on King’s allegiance.
It’s often claimed that we change history to fit our philosophical and personal convictions. Despite how many Americans presently view Ronald Reagan as a liked and capable leader who improved America his record doesn’t support that view.