As Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980, pundits were saying that the job was too big for one person--that the United States needed more of an executive-team approach, like that adopted by many corporations. But in his two terms in office Reagan achieved all his major goals, and he made it look easy. He seemed to coast, and so effortlessly that he acquired a reputation for laziness. Even this didn't faze him: When asked by a reporter why he didn't work harder, he said, "Well, they say hard work never hurt anyone, but I say, Why take a chance?"
To say that Reagan achieved his major goals is no small statement. During his two terms as president, the United States shook off the stagflation of the late 1970s and embarked on a period of unprecedented economic growth; taxes were reduced and the tax system itself was twice reformed; the first free-trade agreement was negotiated with Canada, a major trading partner, and the first arms-reduction agreement was signed with the Soviet Union. Countries around the world, seeing Reagan's vision successfully implemented in the United States, began to abandon statist policies and to seek economic growth through free-market principles and privatization. Most important, the American people--after Watergate, Vietnam, and the malaise of the Carter years--returned to their characteristic sense of optimism and self-confidence, much in evidence still today.
Even after Reagan left office, his influence continued. The Soviet empire collapsed, followed closely by the Soviet Union itself--events properly attributable both to Reagan's relentless military buildup and his refusal to concede legitimacy to the Soviet Union, which he marked as an evil empire. Indeed, it is not too much to say that in eight years this extraordinary man reshaped both the United States and the world.
How did Reagan--so lightly regarded by the media and the elites--achieve these monumental things? In my view, there are three principal reasons. First, Reagan believed in the power of ideas--that change would come not simply from electoral success, but from changing the way the American people looked at their government and thought about themselves. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan served notice that his would be a presidency founded on ideas, and that these ideas would differ fundamentally from those of his post-New Deal predecessors. "Government," he said then to a nation troubled by economic decline, "is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," and, equally important: "We are a nation that has a government--not the other way around." Then, in keeping with his belief that changing minds was the only path to real reform, he sought to persuade the American people to rely on themselves, and not the government, to achieve their goals. That he was ultimately successful cannot be doubted. Just ask Bill Clinton: After the defeat of his massive government health plan--and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994--even Mr. Clinton had to concede that "the era of big government is over."
Second, Reagan had convictions--not just "positions," but principles he believed in and was willing to act upon. When he stayed the course on his economic policy during the severe recession of 1981-82, when he dismissed the Air Traffic Controllers, and when, at Reykjavik in 1986, he walked away from Mikhail Gorbachev over the Soviet leader's demand that he abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan showed that there were some things on which he was willing to stake his presidency. This, too, separated him from his modern predecessors, who had given the American people the impression that everything could be negotiated. Reagan's extraordinary acts of political courage demonstrated that politics had a moral core, and that government decisions could be based on something more solid and enduring than the shifting sands of political expediency.
Finally, Reagan was more interested in the success of his ideas than in his own place in history. On his Oval Office desk was a sign: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." For Ronald Reagan this was more than a motivational aphorism; it was a personal credo. It allowed him to forego debilitating concerns about his personal legacy and to focus exclusively on gaining acceptance for his ideas. In his farewell address to the nation, he said, "I won a nickname, 'The Great Communicator.' But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
Beyond all this were his extraordinary personal qualities. Ronald Reagan, in my experience, was not an ordinary man--but he reflected what is best in ordinary men and women, and frequently absent in politicians: a genuine concern for the sensibilities and dignity of others, modesty and humility despite his high office, a sunny optimism, a sense of humor about himself, a faith in the essential goodness of everyone he encountered, and a quiet, polite, and gentle demeanor at all times and to all around him. In other words, he was the very embodiment of the best in the people who elected him twice to the country's highest office. Given the demands and compromises thrust upon politicians in our democracy, it is a small miracle that a person of his quality and character reached the presidency at all.
Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at AEI.