Let Reagan be Reagan

The nation has paid its respects to our fortieth president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. He was a man of extraordinary charm and he was a remarkably effective advocate for the causes in which he believed. He refocused the nation on values and traditions such as family and work and he bore the heavy responsibilities of the presidency for eight long years.

For all of these reasons, we as a nation should be appreciative. But our appreciation should not extend to rewriting history. The lessons that a nation must learn from its history are far too important to allow it to be rewritten for the benefit of any man. Yet, I have been tempted to check the dates of Ronald Reagan's presidency in the history books when I listened to recent television and press coverage of his accomplishments and legacy. To be certain January 1981 to 1989 was a period of momentous change — but it would be difficult for individuals of any persuasion or political affiliation to argue that all of that change was positive. Here are some examples:


The Reagan administration pushed the nation into one of the greatest constitutional crises of the 20th century when it was revealed that the country had engaged in a secret and illegal war in Central America. The president escaped impeachment proceedings on the basis that it was plausible that he was unaware of the illegal war and the means by which it had been financed.


The U.S. economy entered an economic downturn in the summer of 1981 following the passage of the president's tax and budget proposals. Bond traders began unloading U.S. Treasuries in August 2001 and the collapse of bond prices was quickly followed by a decline in stock prices. Unemployment swelled to more than 10 percent of the workforce. Over the eight years of the Reagan administration unemployment averaged more than 7.5 percent – a full percentage point above the average of the previous administration.


More people lived in poverty during the Reagan administration. The average number of people living under the poverty line during the eight years of the Reagan administration was 33.1 million, 25 percent more than the 26.2 milion living in poverty during the previous administration.

Middle Class

Many American workers confronted falling wages during the Reagan administration. The real (inflation adjusted) median money income of American men working year round and full time fell by nearly 1 percent during his eight years in office. More married mothers were forced to accept employment to offset the declining earning power of men.


The public debt increased by 178 percent between fiscal 1981 and fiscal 1989 rising from $789.4 billion to $2190.7 billion. Stated differently, when Reagan left office his eight year administration was accountable for 64 percent of all the debt incurred by this government since the beginning of the republic= The interest payments required to finance the debt created under his administration has exceeded more than $100 billion a year every year since he left office. If one calculates the compounding effect of the debt and the interest payments on the debt the cost to the Treasury thus far has been more than $3 trillion.


The philosophy that "government is not the solution, government is the problem" led to a frontal attack on government investment programs, particularly in science and education. Real dollar federal assistance to local schools declined on a per student basis by about 9 percent during his term in office. Federal spending on the nation's transportation needs declined by nearly 25 percent.

The Savings and Loan Debacle

During the late 1980s one of the largest financial disasters of the 20th century erupted when it became apparent that hundreds of savings and loan institutions across the country had insufficient funds to allow depositors to withdraw money from their accounts. Before it was over, U.S. taxpayers were forced to pay more than $150 billion to close and consolidate the failed institutions. While the crisis was not the result of a single factor, it is clear that a number of Reagan administration policies contributed greatly to the disaster. These included: the 1982 legislation deregulating the S & L industry and encouraging the industry to diversify, the appointment of regulators to the Home Loan Bank Board who actively encouraged the industry to engage in high risk investing; promulgation of new regulations that allowed accounting practices that concealed the extent of S & L insolvency; 1981 tax legislation creating powerful tax incentives for purchasing commercial real estate and causing dramatic inflation in real estate values; 1986 tax legislation reversing the tax advantages for real estate ownership adopted five years earlier; delay in recognizing the true scope of the problem and shutting down failed institutions before they could borrow more money and increase taxpayer liability. All of these actions were either taken as a result of legislation signed into law by the president or by regulations or regulatory actions taken by people whom he appointed.

The Reagan administration like its 39 predecessors and its three successors was marked by both accomplishment and failure. We do not venerate a man by distorting his performance but by recognizing his mistakes so that we and future generations may learn from them. The sooner we develop a balanced view of his eight years in office and realistically assess his failures as well as his accomplishments, the sooner we will benefit from that history. Letting "Reagan be Reagan" can substantially increase his contribution to his country and his legacy.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow