The nostalgic, personal farewell address that President Reagan delivered Wednesday evening makes it hard to view his record and his legacy to America through eyes unclouded by warm emotions.
Even so, an objective assessment of his accomplishments and failures is in order now that the Reagan years are coming to an end. What kind of report card is in order? Considerably better, in our estimation, than most professional political observers are willing to concede.The usual assessment of the past eight years is that Reagan fell short of the mark. Although Ronald Reagan came to Washington promising smaller government, lower taxes, and reduced federal spending, he achieved none of those goals.
Or so the mainstream line of thinking goes, and it scores some telling criticisms - up to a point.
In point of fact, the federal government is bigger than ever, federal spending is a bigger share of the American economy than it was in the 1970's, and rather than being cut, the burden of federal taxes has simply been shifted. At the same time, America shifted from the world's biggest creditor to the world's biggest debtor. Then there's the Iran-Contra scandal.
When all that has been said, the fact remains that Ronald Reagan, who entered the Oval Office in 1980 with the votes of only 27 percent of the eligible voters, is leaving with more than 60 percent of the public applauding his job performance. Moreover, he is the first Chief Executive in three decades to complete two full terms.
Clearly, Ronald Reagan must have done something right. That's putting it mildly.
For openers, the American economy has enjoyed its longest peacetime expansion ever. And Reagan's recent breakthrough agreements with Moscow have reduced the threat of a major war to the lowest level in four decades. Those agreements didn't come about just because there's a moderate new leader in the Kremlin. Rather, the Kremlin got more moderate because the American economy is badly outperforming the Soviet economy and because America rebuilt its military muscle at Reagan's insistence.
What about the massive, stubborn federal deficit and the national debt? It is often said that President Reagan added as much to the national debt as all of the 39 presidents who preceded him. That assessment betrays some short and highly selective memories.
Remember how Congress initially called the Reagan budgets "dead on arrival"? Remember how the lawmakers later took to calling the Reagan budgets "dead before arrival" and how they dismissed the one sent them this past week as "irrelevant"?
Well, how is it that Ronald Reagan singlehandedly managed to balloon the national debt with budgets that ranged from dead to irrelevant? Clearly, President Reagan isn't the only one in Washington with red ink on his hands.
Likewise, though the federal government kept growing during the past eight years, it likely would have grown much more if President Reagan hadn't been around to fight it. Compared to the 24 percent increase from 1958 to 1980, the federal civilian work force grew only 1.5 percent during the past eight years while the population grew 1 percent.
Meanwhile, inflation and unemployment have been sharply reduced since 1980 as America outperforms Europe when it comes to creating new jobs.
No wonder that Ronald Reagan is leaving office with the highest popularity rating of any two-term president in U.S. history. It's sheer folly for his critics to keep insulting Americans' intelligence by pretending that such impressive ratings merely reflect Reagan's ability to mesmerize the public with his personal charm.
Though the U.S. still has plenty of problems, the fact is that Americans feel better about themselves and their country because this nation is generally better off than it was eight years ago. The country can best thank President Reagan by continuing to pursue his key goal of whittling down big and costly government.