Reagan: A Visionary, Heroic Leader

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posted June 7, 2004

On the afternoon of June 5th, 2004, the world lost one of the truly great leaders of the 20th century, former US President Ronald Reagan, after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Though some have sought to discredit his presidency as he faded from public view, upon reflection, Reagan’s policies remain as powerful now as they were when originally enacted nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago. Reagan was a visionary who accomplished his economic and foreign policy goals through decisive action and internal fortitude. Perhaps most importantly, Reagan’s optimism and good-natured demeanour reinvigorated the confidence of the American people, removed national self-doubt, and revitalized the legitimacy of American institutions and ideals. Indeed, Time magazine may well have crowned Mikhail Gorbachev as the “Man of the Decade”, but Ronald Reagan has left a legacy that merits the distinction as being the most important and influential person of the 20th century.

Economic Policy: Re-establishing Prosperity

The foundation of Reagan’s economic policies lay in the belief that individuals are best suited to make their own decisions about how best to spend their money and that, with minimal government interference, the entrepreneurial spirit would spur economic growth. Reagan’s vision of government was quintessentially Jeffersonian: limited and focused on specific tasks.

To that end, Reagan drastically reduced taxes, lowering the top marginal tax rate from 78 to 35 percent. He also abolished the country’s regime of wage and price controls. Moreover, he was firmly committed to sound monetary policy to stem the rising tide of double-digit inflation. This novel policy focus on economic growth and stable prices, which came to be called Reaganomics, ran counter to conventional wisdom at the time (Boskin 1987). In fact, it contrasted starkly with the interventionist policies that were popularized during the 1970s: high marginal tax rates, command and control government regulation, and expansionary monetary policy. For these reasons, the era of Ronald Reagan is probably best characterized as a battle of ideas: the free market and individual freedom versus the welfare state and central planning.

Alongside his tax cuts, Reagan expanded military spending to revitalize the country’s long-neglected defensive capabilities against the growing threat of the Soviet Union. Even so, Reagan repeatedly tried to cut overall government spending as a means to balance the budget, including an ambitious plan to reform Social Security. Though Reagan managed to reduce certain entitlement programs, many of his cuts proved impossible to implement with a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Reagan was focused on passing his major policy objectives, namely tax reduction and significantly increased defence spending, and to do so meant keeping domestic spending roughly at existing levels. With a lack of congressional spending controls and a severe recession in 1981-1982, the US began to run a series of large budget deficits. Over his first term in office, Reagan oversaw deficits larger than $200 billion, and by 1989, the country was $1.5 trillion deeper in debt than when he first took office. Though both frustrated and disappointed that the size of government was not reduced to the extent he envisioned, Reagan was far more interested in getting 80 percent of what he wanted than nothing at all. Besides, Reagan fully appreciated the power of deficits to limit future spending - an influence that was proven later in his second term by a congressional push for balance budget legislation.

Deficits notwithstanding, Reagan oversaw the largest peacetime economic expansion up to that point in US history: unemployment dropped by 30 percent, real GDP grew by almost 23 percent, and inflation was reduced from a staggering 10.3 percent to 4.1 percent. During the 1980s, the median family income grew by 15 percent and the poverty rate fell from 14 percent to 12.8 percent (D’Souza 1997).

The economic turnaround orchestrated by Reagan’s policies are best seen in the light of where they began: the stagflation of the 1970s. Reagan entered office with a disastrous economy: inflation exceeded 10 percent, unemployment stood at 7.3 percent and was rising, and GDP growth was anaemic. Further, there was a general malaise in the United States, most poignantly characterized by then President Carter’s call for Americans to expect less.

Robert L. Bartley, former editor of the Wall Street Journal singularly captured the results of Reagan’s economic policies in his 1995 book, The Seven Fat Years. Bartley describes the Reagan economic boom as unparalleled in American history, excerpts include:

“…92 months of expansion that started in November of 1982 added more than 30 percent-a West Germany-to American output. They boosted per capita income by 20 percent…The labor force swelled to nearly 125 million in 1990 from 106.9 million in 1980-more than 18 million new jobs…workforce participation of women grew to 57 percent from 51 percent…productivity surged…manufacturing output per employee hour was gaining at a rate of more than 3.5 percent a year.”

Perhaps more insightfully, however, Bartley described a rejuvenated and indeed more dynamic economy under Reagan. He cites a plethora of financial statistics to support his claim of a more energetic economy, including a doubling in the turnover rate in Fortune’s list of top companies, significant increases in venture capital ($39 million in 1977 to $4.9 billion in 1987), and exponential increases in the number and value of initial public offerings (28 in 1978 to 953 in 1986).

Reagan’s vision of a renewed American economy and his vigilance in remaining true to his beliefs served the country well. America, in no short order, had reclaimed the heights of economic prosperity after a long, dark decade of economic impotence.

Management: Visionary Rather Than Practitioner

Throughout his presidency, Reagan showed a willingness to delegate authority. Though at times this approach undermined his effectiveness (particularly in the case of Iran-contra), overall, his style of leadership served the American people well. Nonetheless, some critics have misinterpreted this to mean that Reagan was intellectually slow or that he was suffering from senility in his old age (Reagan was almost 78 years old when he left office).

All too often Reagan has been depicted as a simple-thinking actor who lacked the serious intellectual capacity to ponder and indeed impose decisive action on policy matters. The media and in particular left-leaning academics often dismissed Reagan as a lightweight. Rumours abound that Reagan’s policies were more a result of three key players (Edwin Meese, White House Counsel, Michael Deaver, Deputy Chief of Staff, and James Baker, Chief of Staff) than the man himself. Such casual dismissals of the former president were either ill-informed or completely uniformed given that Reagan had political experience as a two-term governor of the nation’s largest state, California.

Indeed, Reagan was a long-time advocate of smaller government even before arriving at the Governor’s mansion in California. The following is an excerpt from a commencement address he gave at Eureka College in 1957:

“[Today] a great many of our freedoms have been lost. It isn’t that an outside enemy has taken them. It’s just that there is something inherent in government which makes it, when it isn’t controlled, continue to grow. So today for every seven of us sitting here in this lovely outdoor theater, there is one public servant, and 31 cents of every dollar earned in America goes in taxes.”

In addition, two recent books by former Reagan adviser Martin Anderson and Kiron Skinner and Annelise Anderson thoroughly refute these superficial and often ad hominen attacks on Reagan. The first book, Reagan In His Own Hand, provides a direct glimpse into the mind of the 40th President by providing a collection of hand written essays and speeches by Reagan. The topics include a wide range of policy matters such as foreign policy, human rights, taxation, government spending, social security, and healthcare. For instance, the chapter on the economy includes well-developed and thoughtful essays on inflation, government spending, taxation, the importance of incentives, unemployment, regulation, public sector employment, agriculture, transportation, and the role of technology.

The second Anderson book, Reagan: A Life in Letters buttresses these conclusions by exhibiting a collection of personal correspondences written personally by the former President. The combination of the two books and the insights contained therein provide powerful fodder for those who have long argued that Reagan was indeed a visionary rather than simply a communicator. Reagan was indeed the grand architect who set the overall policy objectives for others to follow.

Foreign Relations: From Détente to Dominance

Reagan’s unique vision and leadership were also abundantly demonstrated in his dealings with the Soviet Union. By 1981, the threat of Communism was more prominent than ever, as evidenced by the expansion of Soviet influence around the world and its superiority in military might. Despite national and world pressure to pursue appeasement, Reagan abandoned the West’s forty-year policy of détente with the Soviet Union in favour of one of aggressive confrontation. Reagan realized that, despite its economic troubles, the Soviet empire was not about to collapse under its own weight. His policy of “peace through strength” was a multi-pronged initiative: respond to Soviet aggression, frustrate their objectives, and promote Western interests and values around the world (D’Souza 1997).

Reagan’s most notable line of attack was the development of missile defence. While both sides understood that such a costly enterprise was many years, if not decades away from fruition, it would prove to be Reagan’s bargaining chip in achieving key Soviet military and diplomatic concessions. Ultimately, the policies of Reagan were visionary because he never believed in the immutability of the “evil empire” - the Soviet Union would fall when its leaders realized it could not win the arms race; when its people refused to accept destitution in exchange for fruitless military pursuits; when it understood the virtues of individual liberty and the rule of law. Reagan’s decisiveness on how to defeat Communism was unassailable, despite the objections (and at times, ridicule) from members of his own party and even his closest advisors. In the end, Reagan was unilaterally victorious in ending the Soviet Empire and significantly reducing the nuclear threat; something 10 previous administrations failed to achieve.

Personality: Reinvigorating the American Spirit

Despite his many accomplishments in the policy arena, Reagan may be perhaps best remembered for re-instilling confidence in the American people. Over a gloomy 20-year period that saw the Kennedy assassinations, economic stagflation, and Watergate, no president had spent more than one full term in office. However, while his predecessor President Jimmy Carter impressed upon Americans that they needed to settle for less, Reagan was unyielding in his quest to re-establish America as the “shining city on the hill”. Reagan uplifted the country from its malaise and self-doubt partly through patriotism and pride in the military, but more notably through his persuasiveness as “The Great Communicator”. In was in this capacity where Reagan spoke frequently of his confidence and trust in the American people. In his inaugural address he declared:

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams… We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”


President Ronald Reagan will long be remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders. While his legacy is not perfect, it cannot be denied that Reagan shaped the world in a way (and in magnitude) that few other leaders have managed to achieve. Not only did Reagan revolutionize economic policy, but he was also an American hero who guided the West to victory over Communism, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once put, “without firing a shot”. Through a rare combination of character and conviction, Reagan steered the United States from an era of uncertainty and despondency towards a future of peace and prosperity.

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