I did a poll recently (as of writing this, the results are still up, but it won’t be forever). I asked, “Who was the worst President of the last 40 years?” Here are the results:
Nixon - 11 (6%)
Ford - 1 (0%)
Carter - 10 (6%)
Reagan - 18 (11%)
Bush I - 1 (0%)
Clinton - 2 (1%)
Bush II - 101 (62%)
Obama - 17 (10%)
(161 votes total)
I did not vote, in anticipation of writing my own opinion after the poll closed.
I’m a little surprised by the results. From them, I can infer a few things. One is that about 17% of my readers lean to the political right (more than I would have thought, and certainly more than I will have after this post). But more importantly, I am assuming that my readers are relatively young, or conversely, have poor memories.
Only 11 votes for Nixon, the only president to have resigned in disgrace,
is quite shocking to me. I had expected him to get far more votes. I had even begun researching his policies in preparation for defending him (opening ties with China, starting the EPA, signing anti-ballistic missile treaties with the USSR, enforcing desegregation in the South…). I guess there’s no point, since history has been relatively kind to Nixon, it seems.
Personally, I would say Reagan was the worst president of last 40 years, hands down. I’m actually shocked more people didn’t select him, and I have to believe it’s largely due to how fresh the George W. Bush wound is. Bush II was bad, but he wasn’t Ronald Reagan bad.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin with explaining how damaging Reagan’s presidency was to the nation. The man basically invented the modern system of extreme deficit spending as an overt strategy for bankrupting the nation. He called it “starving the beast,” the idea being that once the Federal government was indebted, it could no longer do certain things (like provide welfare). The national debt tripled under this “fiscal conservative.”
He also helped American homelessness balloon out of control. He cut funding for low-income housing, he closed down mental health institutions for the poor, and the end result was millions of impoverished Americans (many of whom are mentally ill) living literally on the streets. He even fabricated the myth of the “welfare queen,” a non-existent schemer who keeps having children in order to collect ever growing government hand-outs while never working, a practice that has never been demonstrated to have occurred in America, ever.
Reagan also cut taxes for the rich more than any president in history. When he was elected, the highest marginal tax rate was 70%, a rate that had been in place (or higher) since FDR. When Reagan left office, it was 28%. Meanwhile, taxes on middle- and lower-income families all went up. Reagan actually raised taxes seven out of his eight years, just not for the wealthy.
Reagan traded weapons and money to Iran for the release of hostages. Among most people, that’s called “negotiating with terrorists,” and it encourages terrorism. Reagan was a big fan of terrorism, having also funded the mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan known as the Taliban. With billions in American arms and cash, not to mention CIA training, the Taliban and bin Laden made good use of it for the next few decades, consolidating power in the Middle East before bringing down the Twin Towers; 9/11 wouldn’t have been possible without Reagan. He might as well have been the 20th hijacker (I assume he just forgot to board the plane due to his Alzheimer’s).
His record on unemployment is also abysmal. There was 7.5% unemployment when Reagan took office in 1981, and by 1982, that had jumped to 11%. Reagan took a hard stand against unions, and fired 11,345 air traffic controllers who went on strike for safer working conditions and better pay. And yet, Reagan was a lifetime member of SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). He was even SAG’s president on two separate occasions, from 1947 through 1952, and again in 1959. His presidency for SAG saw him fight for the first pension and healthcare plans for SAG members… but his US Presidency saw him rejecting the very idea of collective bargaining (I guess because it didn’t benefit him, personally).
While we’re on his acting career, Reagan also named names to the FBI regarding who he thought was a communist, and he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Classy. Anyway, back to his wretched presidency…
Reagan was also horrible on social issues. He made a concerted effort to ignore the AIDS outbreak, the first cases of which were identified in the same year he took office. Despite this growing epidemic, Reagan ignored requests for funding and his own communications director, Pat Buchanan, claimed that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Reagan himself did not even publicly address the issue until 1987, near the end of his second term, after which point over 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and over 20,000 had died. On being asked why there was nothing but silence from Reagan, his Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, said Reagan’s advisors “took the stand, ‘They are only getting what they deserve.’”
He also escalated the drug war initiated by Nixon, with him and his wife popularizing what will arguably go down as the dumbest anti-drug campaign in history, “Just say no.” Reagan signed increasingly punitive minimum sentencing laws (notably singling out crack cocaine), a legacy that has left us with packed jails, increased racial tensions, and the world’s highest incarceration rate.
Reagan also escalated the Cold War, spending billions on stockpiling arms and fighting proxy wars (like his funding for the Taliban). Military spending went up 40% in his first term alone. He would go on to suggest building a space-based missile defense system.
Even if you’re a conservative who worships him, just a cursory glance at his real record (not the myth surrounding him) would turn any Neocon against him. Besides raising taxes seven out of his eight years (actually raising taxes 11 times in total), Reagan granted 3 million illegal immigrants amnesty through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. He also sided with his former assistant and White House Press Secretary James Brady’s efforts to enact the Brady Bill. I’m also not sure how conservatives can claim they hate “Hollywood Liberals,” when it is the Republican Party who elected an actor to the White House.
But what I think has been most damaging is the utterly nonsensical idea popularized by Reagan that government can’t solve anything, and that government is actually the cause of all our problems. He not only went around saying that the government is a bunch of screw ups, he seemed to purposely embody this idea by consciously screwing up over, and over, and over again… to the point that I’m surprised anyone alive at that time thinks government can accomplish anything after his presidency. He almost single-handedly caused an entire generation of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers to adopt a defeatist attitude when it comes to government. He is the cause of more political cynicism than any president in my lifetime, both through his words and his actions.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, I shouldn’t have to go over. Maybe I assume too much, but I think most people know what he did wrong. We’re living with the consequences of his policies right now, but it’s important to note how much of W’s ideology and policies are rooted in the so-called Reagan Revolution.
It was Reagan who initially courted the Religious Right for the Republicans. It was Reagan who championed tax cuts for the wealthy. It was Reagan who advocated for careless deregulation. Even the problems faced by Bush in the financial sector trace their roots back to the Savings and Loan Crisis during Reagan’s presidency. When Reagan deregulated the savings and loan industry, hundreds of banks failed, contributing to the 1987 stock market crash. Reagan borrowed billions to bail them out.
Basically, if you hated W, you would despise Reagan, and without Reagan, there never could have been a President George W. Bush. You can even see it in the way Reagan and Bush talked… Reagan called the USSR “the evil empire.” When asked about the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan “couldn’t recall.” Reagan even had a reputation for taking too many breaks and vacations, and for being little more than a puppet who read what he was told.
Even his allies didn’t think much of the man. Margaret Thatcher famously said of him, “Poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.” His press secretary, Larry Speakes, described prepping Reagan for a press conference as “like reinventing the wheel.” Clark Clifford, his Defense Secretary, called him “an amiable dunce.”
As far as I’m concerned, the only nice thing I can say about Ronald Reagan is that he’s dead.