It has been more than thirty years since Ronald Reagan completed his second term as US president. The Gipper, who was first elected in 1980 and re-elected four years later, is held up by most Republicans as the gold standard of the office, especially for his role in standing up to the Soviets. To Democrats, however, Reagan is remembered more for the Iran-Contra scandal than for ending the Cold War.
Here are three arguments that Reagan was the greatest US president since World War II and three more asserting that he was an irresponsible and heartless leader who benefited from circumstances outside of his control.
Reagan brought an American rebirth
Reagan ended the Cold War
While the Berlin Wall fell during George H.W. Bush’s first year in office, it was President Reagan’s strong foreign policy and tough stance towards the Soviet Union that helped the US win the Cold War. Upon taking office, Reagan launched a military buildup aimed at reassuring the country’s allies, forcing the USSR to the negotiating table, and ensuring that the US could prevail in the event of war. Defense spending rose from 5.5 percent of GDP in 1979 to 6.8 percent in 1986.
Reagan also recommitted the US to stopping the spread of Soviet-style Marxism around the globe. In Afghanistan, he upped his predecessor’s support for anti-Soviet forces, leading the USSR to flee. At the same time, he was restrained in the use of military force. While many of Reagan’s actions – including his Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system dubbed “Star Wars” by critics – were mocked at the time, Reagan had the last laugh. His commitment to “peace through strength” was vindicated with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He restarted the economy
Under Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, the country had suffered from years of stagflation, i.e., inflation without economic growth. When Reagan took office, he brought a new economic approach, lowering taxes and lifting burdensome regulations. While it took a couple years to get going, Reagan’s economy was a model of strength. From 1983 to 1988, annual GDP growth never dipped below 3.5 percent (for context, the last time the US hit that mark was 2005 – before surging to 5.9 percent in 2021). In 1984, growth reached a whopping 7.3 percent, the highest mark since 1951. Unemployment fell from over 10 percent in 1983 to just above 5 percent when Reagan’s term ended. While Reagan did run a deficit, the severity is often exaggerated. Barack Obama and George W. Bush added more to the debt in 2009 alone than Reagan did in eight years in office.
He worked across the aisle
It may be hard to imagine former president Trump and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or current President Biden and current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy kicking off their shoes after work and knocking back a glass of whiskey together, but that is exactly how Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, ended their day. And his aisle-crossing was not limited to happy hour. His immigration reform bill signed in 1986 allowed amnesty for those who entered the country before 1982. He also worked with O’Neill on a deficit reduction bill that increased taxes. Some of these actions were not popular among Reagan’s base, but they won over the electorate at large. Reagan won both his elections by a landslide, and in his re-election came with the most electoral votes in history. And Americans’ view of the Gipper has only improved with time. He also won over people’s hearts and appreciation by publicly sharing his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 1994.
Reagan was fiscally and militarily irresponsible
His domestic policy was a disaster
Reagan is often credited with reviving the US economy, though his first term began with a 16-month recession. His true legacy, though, is one of expanding deficits caused by a growing defense budget and tax cuts that proved to be irresponsible. During Reagan’s presidency, there were also a record eight government shutdowns, suggesting enduring political partisanship and battles.
When it came to responsible budgeting, Reagan was anything but a fiscal conservative. The budget deficit was just $79 billion Reagan’s first year in office, around 1.5 percent of GDP. By 1983, the shortfall had reached $208 billion, or 5.6 percent of GDP. It would reach $221 billion in 1986. The national debt nearly tripled to more than $2.6 billion when he left office. Had the US gone deeply into the red improving health care (these were the years of the AIDS crisis, which Reagan was infamously indifferent about) or fighting poverty, it may have been justifiable. But this was decidedly not the case.
His foreign policy was no better
While the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with Reagan’s term in office, it was caused not by Reagan’s military buildup, tough talk or “Star Wars” speech. The fundamental weakness of the Soviet economy and Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership played a much greater role – Reagan was simply in office at the right time. Reagan’s actual foreign policy decisions brought about undesirable consequences. His military buildup led to huge deficits. His support for Nicaraguan Contras undermined that country’s democracy and stability (and led to the Iran-Contra scandal, detailed below). His intervention in Afghanistan helped pave the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda. And his invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, which included a mistaken bombing of a mental hospital, irked even US allies.
He betrayed Americans’ trust with Iran-Contra
Few episodes have represented a betrayal of the American trust to the degree of the Iran-Contra affair. In an attempt to free American hostages held by Lebanese terrorists and to support Nicaraguan Contras, Reagan’s administration covertly sold weapons to Iran and funneled the proceeds to the Latin American rebels. The former was both illegal – there was an embargo against shipping arms to Iran – and a violation of his campaign pledge not to negotiate with terrorists. The latter violated a Congressional ban against operations in Nicaragua. The operation was a failure; while three hostages were released, three more were soon abducted. When the operation came to light, it badly damaged Reagan’s reputation and led to charges against 14 people in the administration, including Oliver North.
The Bottom Line: Since leaving office, Ronald Reagan has become a Republican icon. While his legacy is mixed, some Republican presidents that have followed have made some moderate Democrats nostalgic for the Reagan years, even though he remains to many a polarizing figure almost two decades after his death.