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Opponents were enraged when the former president’s supporters pushed to have Reagan’s name added to Washington National Airport in commemoration of his birthday in 1998. They called it an unfitting tribute because Reagan, in one of the defining moments of his presidency, in 1981 fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers who refused his order to return to work.

During a fiery debate in Congress, some were harsher still.

“The average black American thinks Reagan is responsible for the rebirth of racism in this country,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat. The legislation to rename the airport passed the House by a 240-186 vote and the Senate by a 76-22 vote. President Clinton signed it into law.

Fights to add the Reagan name continued over whether other public works, such as the Washington area’s Metro subway system, would change their signage to reflect the new name of the airport.

At the height of the movement to commemorate Reagan, some wanted his visage on the dime or the $10 bill.

Historians say Reagan has benefited from a concerted effort by backers to defend his legacy, particularly against what they perceive as press coverage stacked against him. Former aides do that for every president, but Mr. Dallek, the historian, said Reagan’s backers are particularly adept and committed.

A 2005 Wall Street Journal survey of an ideologically balanced group of political scientists, historians and law professors rated Reagan as sixth successful among the nation’s 45 presidents. Liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1996 survey designated him as “average.”

Historians in a 2010 Siena College poll ranked the greatest and worst presidents. Reagan came in 18th, three behind Barack Obama and five behind Mr. Clinton. He scored high marks on leadership, communication ability and “luck,” but was rated near the bottom on “intelligence.”

Surveys of broader America taken over the past decade regularly find Reagan immensely popular among average voters. On polls asking who the greatest president was, Reagan’s name is almost always in the top three or five.

Whether he was great or merely average, his influence stretches to modern-day politics — so much so that Mr. Obama, on the campaign trail in 2008, said Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” During his Hawaiian vacation in December, Mr. Obama read a biography of his predecessor, Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

“In some ways both Obama and Clinton have had to deal with Reagan’s legacy,” Mr. Dallek said. “Yes, Obama’s supporters talk about the mess that George W. Bush left — whether it’s Afghanistan, deficits, there’s something to that. But if you take the longer view, I think Obama and Clinton are very much grappling with Reagan’s rhetorical commitment to smaller government and trying to figure out how they are going to pursue a more progressive agenda while still maintaining their hold on the country.”

Republicans’ assertions that Reagan is still the dominant figure of their party could be an understatement.

At last month’s debate among candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee, the party’s central office, Mr. Norquist asked the contenders who their political hero was — “aside from President Reagan.”

Mr. Dallek, though, said the irony is that there’s not even consensus among his supporters about why he should be revered. Instead, Reagan is “a bit of a Rorschach test” for conservatives, who see what they want to see in his legacy.

Some Republicans, particularly those from the tea party wing of the party, appreciate his support of limited government, though they tend to look past the explosion of the federal bureaucracy during his two terms in office. Hawkish conservatives admire his foreign policy, especially his uncompromising rhetoric about communism.

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