In the most recent scientific poll of political scientists, historians, and legal scholars, Ronald Reagan ranked as the sixth-greatest president in American history. Sixth! While in office, Reagan received little respect from scholars and pundits, who had always dismissed him as little more than an actor. When he left office, Reagan was ranked below average.
Now Reagan falls just behind Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Jefferson, and T.R. on our list of greatest leaders. The passage of time has given scholars a newfound appreciation. Reagan came to office when the United States seemed to be in retreat on the world stage, and left it with the Soviet Union on its way to collapse under the weight of its economic inefficiencies and military spending. Critics have suggested that Reagan turned out to be lucky, as he had been all his life, and just happened to be in the Oval Office when internal problems caused the Soviet Union to crumble.
Yet the United States was back on its heels when he took office in 1981. The Soviets had achieved superiority in nuclear as well as conventional arms, and the aftermath of Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis had given rise to the idea that America was an over-muscled Gulliver. No one would have predicted that the Soviet Union would disappear, and the Warsaw Pact along with it, eight years later. Reagan adopted a national-security strategy that would place high demands on the economy for resources and a large buildup of the military. But unlike his predecessors, Reagan did not aim to react in the same manner and place to block the Soviets. He built up forces in order to challenge the Soviets to a competitive arms race that would bankrupt their economy, while pursuing rollback in the Third World. Millions live in freedom today because of Reagan.
All of this could not have happened without Reagan’s restoration of the presidency’s constitutional prerogatives. Watergate had led to congressional restrictions on executive power in foreign affairs. Congress had enacted a War Powers Resolution to hamstring the presidency’s control of the military, created independent counsels to investigate executive-branch officials, and sought to render the administrative state free from White House direction. Reagan pursued a constitutional agenda that brushed aside congressional attempts to limit the use of force abroad, attacked in the courts Congress’s legislative vetoes and independent counsels (with mixed success), and required that the massive administrative state obey the laws of cost and benefit and supply and demand. He appointed judges to the Supreme Court and the lower courts who attempted to restore the original Constitution’s clean, three-branch separation of power against the New Deal–era bastardization that had created an overgrown and unwieldy bureaucracy and an irresponsible Congress.
Reagan’s constitutional agenda not only enabled his own foreign and domestic programs to succeed but also bequeathed to his successors the tools that they too would need to exercise the command to bring the United States through the crises of the next decades. Without Reagan’s independent, energetic executive — the very one described by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers — the United States will not confront successfully today’s challenges of overseas wars, terrorist threats, and domestic economic paralysis. Presidents today and tomorrow are fortunate that we still live in the Age of Reagan.