Ronald Reagan: Man of the Century
by Daniel J. Rabil
Ronald Reagan left the Democratic Party in 1962, but he always remained an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Reagan would occupy Roosevelt’s old office a half-century after FDR did. As fate would have it, the eras in which the two men governed were surprisingly similar. It makes for a fascinating comparison.
Both Roosevelt and Reagan assumed office during times of economic distress. Both presidents also faced powerful, aggressive foreign enemies. Yet the approaches taken by the two men were vastly different. Reagan’s was better.
Economically, America teetered on the brink of disaster the night President-elect Roosevelt’s train rolled into Washington in March 1933. A three year-old depression plagued the country. A national banking collapse seemed imminent. Flustered by a Democratic Congress, lame duck President Herbert Hoover had all but given up trying to lead.
Then came Mr. Roosevelt’s stirring inaugural address, in which he assured the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The new president immediately followed this speech with highly visible directives, including an extended bank holiday, to calm a jittery populace. For this early boldness alone, FDR deserves great credit.
But Mr. Roosevelt’s ensuing domestic program was a hodgepodge of emergency relief, regulatory action, make-work projects, and tariff flip-flops. Particularly during his first term, the New Dealer emphasized that he was guided not by ideology but rather by a willingness to experiment to find “what works.” The American economy did rebound from its 1932 bottom, but economic indicators did not return to their 1929 highs until 1937 (when a new recession struck). As the years passed and the depression persisted, FDR veered increasingly leftward to meet his impulse for voter-pleasing “action.”
By 1938, federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product was triple its 1929 level. The Great Depression would linger until 1939, cured only by the start of war in Europe.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan too faced an economic crisis. That situation was less severe, but in many ways more insidious, than that which faced Roosevelt in 1933: the stagflation and unemployment that had plagued America since 1974. But Mr. Reagan looked to the people, not the government, for economic solutions; he successfully pushed for a 25% income tax cut (he wanted 30%) and fought to reduce suffocating federal regulations.
Unfortunately for Mr. Reagan, the first portion of his tax cuts had barely been phased-in when the Federal Reserve’s tight money policies tipped the economy back into recession – the most severe of the postwar period – in 1982. Democrats and the press mercilessly portrayed Reagan as a cold-hearted tool of the rich, indifferent to the suffering of poor Americans.
But President Reagan knew that restraint is often the noblest expression of power. He resisted their unimaginative cries to “do something,” for he knew that the protectionist and stimulus programs favored by liberals would only worsen the nation’s long-term economic troubles. He firmly pledged to “stay the course,” at the cost of 26 Republican congressional seats in the 1982 elections. Reagan’s resolve paid off: the recovery of 1983 rocketed America’s economy above its 1981 high, and the newly freed economy has looked back only once since, in 1991.
How Roosevelt and Reagan dealt with their respective foreign affairs challenges also reveals much about each man’s character. Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year stay in office matched Adolf Hitler’s reign to within weeks. Imperial Japan spent the 1930s invading China and pursuing Pacific dominance. Meanwhile, glory-starved Benito Mussolini aggressively pursued Italian imperial ambitions.
In private, Mr. Roosevelt expressed his opinion in the 1930s that war with Japan or in Europe was a strong possibility. But Roosevelt felt that Americans were preoccupied with domestic economic concerns, and he dared not challenge the strong isolationist sentiment spawned by the Great War. Consequently, he did not attempt to lead Americans to adopt his conviction regarding the threat posed by the rising dictators. Although billions of dollars were spent on New Deal social programs, no meaningful defense spending increases were authorized until 1938. As he had done with his activist domestic programs, Roosevelt was taking the easy path rather than the courageous one.
For a world leader, such fecklessness has a cost. Early in Mr. Roosevelt’s first term, he formally recognized Stalin’s Soviet Union and issued a letter asking 54 nations to sign a nonaggression treaty – the doe-eyed naivete of which no doubt impressed the world’s dictators. Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. There followed a stream of aggressions by Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan leading to the general outbreak of war in 1939-41 and Stalin’s postwar enslavement of Eastern Europe.
Four decades and three wars later, President Reagan assumed office in 1981 at the high tide of the Soviet Union’s postwar aggressiveness. Country after country had fallen to Soviet-sponsored communists in the wake of America’s loss in Vietnam. Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, beginning their decade-long occupation. Nuclear war seemed more likely than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.
But in matters of peace and war, Ronald Reagan was again willing to lead public opinion, not just follow it. Forcefully calling for a strong defense and the end of dÈtente-era appeasement, Mr. Reagan boldly challenged the prevailing orthodoxy. That orthodoxy held that America was in decline and must accept an expansive Soviet Union as the price for peace. Reagan’s hawkish position was political dynamite when he first began hammering the theme home during his failed 1976 presidential run. Yet almost single-handedly, the future president had changed the terms of the peace debate, paving the way for his 1980 mandate to rearm America.
Then, demonstrating that elected leaders need not capitulate to shifting public opinion, President Reagan refused to compromise his defense program. This program included deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe. Looking back, over the rubble of the Berlin Wall and 16 years of American economic growth, it is easy to forget what a rare act of personal strength this was. Mr. Reagan endured enormous media and political pressure to sacrifice bombs for social spending during a deep recession, and he withstood the massive, Soviet-supported nuclear freeze movement of 1982-83.
And in the end, Reagan was proved right. We won the great victory without the Roman numeral-sized war. For this unheralded combination of persuasion and courage, millions of now-free people in Europe and around the globe owe Ronald Reagan a tremendous debt.
So why then is Reagan typically rated an “average” president by the academics who make such historic pronouncements, while Franklin Roosevelt is routinely considered “great”? There are two reasons. Media and academia are dominated by those on the political left, and such liberals prefer activism over less dramatic governing philosophies. Sadly, presidential stature also grows for leaders who govern during wars and crises. And Franklin Roosevelt thrived on twelve years of almost continuous economic crisis and war, then – with splendid timing – he died in office as his war neared its victorious conclusion.
(Predictably, Time magazine reportedly considered naming FDR its “Man of the Century” before settling instead on Albert Einstein.)
But presidential greatness comprises more than just crisis management and prolific lawmaking. Courageous leaders do not float cynically atop currents of public opinion when that opinion is wrong or poorly informed. They guide their nations along difficult but necessary paths with clearly stated principles and by the strength of their moral force. And great leaders do not wait for “inevitable” wars to thrust themselves on their citizens. They resolutely enforce peace.
Such leadership traits are timeless. In learning them, Franklin Roosevelt could surely have used a teacher named Ronald Wilson Reagan.