WASHINGTON - In an uncertain world, Ronald Reagan stood for certainty. He was unwavering, absolute in his convictions - especially when changing.
Consistency was not a hobgoblin of the Reagan White House.That style not only worked, it triumphed. The 40th president left office on Friday with the highest public approval ratings since the pollsters started keeping score.
A New York Times-CBS News poll conducted Jan. 12 to 15 showed that 68 percent approval of Reagan's job performance. That's 9 points higher than the farewell approval rating of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And Reagan made those numbers count politically. He was the first president in 60 years to leave office at the inauguration of an elected successor of his own party.
For Reagan, the genius was not in the details but, more often, in avoiding them. He made U turns without a signal, and usually without a problem. He campaigned against deficits and tripled them. He won the biggest tax cut in U.S. history and later quietly signed the biggest increase. He denounced Moscow's "evil empire," then fashioned a "new closeness" with the Soviet Union under new leadership.
A prime exhibit: the swollen federal budget deficit.
"Time and again I have proposed measures to help curb federal domestic program spending," Reagan said in the budget he bequeathed to President Bush. "Time and again these proposals have been rejected by Congress."
He said the deficit problem began with the recession that hit early in his first term, and worsened because he couldn't get half the spending curbs he sought. By Reagan's reckoning, he hadn't changed, conditions had. So he kept making the deficit speech while the deficit soared on his watch.
But in six of the eight Reagan budget years, the budget passed by Congress actually was lower than that proposed by the administration.
Supplemental appropriations, approved after the budget resolution was adopted, pushed actual spending higher than the Reagan budget in all but two of those years. Those additions were the handiwork of both Congress and the administration.
Reagan campaigned in 1980 with a promise to balance the budget within a four-year term. The federal debt has nearly tripled, to $2.6 billion, during his two terms. The average deficit was $180 billion.
With deficits worsening, Reagan insisted that a balanced budget had not been a campaign commitment - "I've never said anything but that it was a goal."
He promised a military buildup and he delivered, a $2.4 trillion expansion during his eight years. That fed the deficit and the struggle over priorities that raged through both his terms.
Reagan political challenges stayed the hands of two presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, in arms control dealings with Moscow. Ford dropped the word "detente" from his vocabulary while fending off Reagan in 1976. Compared with the Reagan-era thaw, Ford's detente was a chill.
Reagan's farewell address described "a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union." He and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty to scrap intermediate range nuclear missiles, met at the summit five times in three years and fashioned a dramatically different relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Reagan said that was possible because "this time, so far, it's different," the Soviet Union has changed.
Reagan changed, too, but he wasn't given to mentioning it.
When the Iran arms sales of 1985 and 1986 were disclosed, Reagan insisted he had not tried to trade arms for hostages.
The record showed otherwise. When his own investigating commission said so, the president acknowledged that what he called an attempted opening to Iran had deteriorated into arms for hostages.
Even then, he said "my heart and my best intentions still tell me" it wasn't a trade despite "the facts and the evidence." Soon afterward he reverted to the no-trade position and stuck with it to the end of his term.
For all that, Reagan's years were years of evolution. "They call it the Reagan Revolution and I'll accept that," he said, "but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery: a rediscovery of our values and our common sense."
Rediscovery or revolution, it rewrote the agenda, ending an era in which government programs multiplied to address each emerging problem. Reagan always said that government was the problem, not the solution.
He argued that the government shouldn't have more revenue because it would only spend the money. His parting budget advice was to curb deficits "by continuing to limit the appetite of government."
A troubling legacy to President Bush, the deficits Reagan rued may yet serve the purposes of the Reagan revolution. Limits on government are more easily enforced when borrowing is the only way the bills.