It is rare that a contemporary political figure would generate such acclaim so soon after his time in office. The public judges President Ronald Reagan to have been one of the great presidents of the 20th century - indeed, one of the greatest of all time. Even professors are coming around. Though they’re not as enthusiastic as the public at large, a poll of academicians conducted by Young America’s Foundation found that 61 percent considered Reagan’s tenure to have been “mostly a success,” as opposed to 59 percent who felt that way about the “Chosen One,” Barack Obama.
I think there are several reasons why the Reagan legacy wears so well.
First is the obvious successes of his presidency - successes that are impossible to hide or overlook. Here are just a few: more than 17 million new jobs created, an economy brought back from the brink of meltdown, the lowest growth in domestic discretionary spending of any presidency since World War II, some check on union power in the breaking of the air-traffic controllers strike, two tax reform bills that brought marginal rates on wages down from 70 percent to 28 percent, and the end of the Cold War and the threat of Soviet communism on the most favorable terms to the United States and the West. As Reagan said in his farewell speech to Americans days before leaving office, “Not bad; Not bad at all.” It just becomes impossible for even the most avid liberal to spin the 1980s in any way other than as a decade of real promise and progress for America.
Second, Americans are not a materialistic people. We believe in improving our own circumstances, to be sure, but even more, we want to continue and enhance the greatness of America. Reagan’s policy successes, his focus on helping every American achieve his or her true potential, his optimism and his belief in America as an exceptional nation restored Americans’ confidence in their country. The turmoil and economic stagnation of the late 1960s and 1970s created much disillusionment and fear that our system of government was antiquated and could not respond to future challenges. Reagan’s optimism and presidential success changed that. He restored Americans’ belief in themselves and their country at a most critical time.
Third, Reagan had strong beliefs and stuck to those beliefs even when they were unpopular. Liberals complained that his easygoing manner and professional communications skills deceived the public as to the harsh reality of his policies. A better explanation is that Reagan engendered confidence in his actions, even if the public had concerns about specific policies. This is the real essence of leadership, a trait much discussed but seldom practiced or understood. Leadership is convincing people that your vision is correct and that you have the skills to implement that vision. Reagan had the ability to communicate his confidence to the public and to win their trust and support even as many harbored doubts.
So what lessons can we continue to learn as we celebrate Reagan’s 101st birthday? First, though the challenges we face may change, the principles that should guide us to solve those challenges are timeless. For instance, smaller, constitutional government solutions still are more powerful and effective than big government. See “Obama, Barack” for proof of this. Second, there is no substitute for taking your case directly to the American public. Reagan did this time after time and won more arguments than he lost. Third, nothing worth doing is easy. If it were, it would have been done already. The changes needed to make our country stronger economically will not be easy, but persistence and fortitude usually will be rewarded by the American people.
So we say again: Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Your example still shows us the way.
Frank Donatelli is the chairman of the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors and serves on Young America’s Foundation’s Board of Directors. He served as a senior adviser to President Reagan.