Reagan at 100: Rosy Retrospection

Feb 4, 2011 7:55am

Two days from Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday the hagiography that’s long surrounded the 40th president is in full dress mode – seemingly supported less by public views of his work in office than by the remarkable strength of his skills as a communicator. Plus, of course, the chance to sell a few books.  

Reagan, according to promotional materials from the publisher of his son Ron’s new memoir, is “one of the most popular presidents in American history.” National Public Radio repeated that line verbatim in a piece last weekend. USA Today’s used similar language, as have many others.  

Is it so?  

Not by the numbers, if by “popular” we mean the recipient of high levels of public approval for his overall job performance. By that standard, as I put it in a data review at the time of his death in 2004, “Ronald Reagan is misremembered as one of the most popular presidents.”  

I mean no disrespect; Reagan was transformational, igniting a departure of conservative Democrats from their party to his; the “Reagan Revolution” lasted a generation. His skepticism toward government struck a deep chord that resonates for many as much now as it did then. And his grasp and use of rhetoric was superb, as I suggested last week in comparing President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address with Reagan’s in 1983.  

But “one of the most popular presidents in American history?” On that one, I’ve dusted off my 2004 retrospective. Among its key points:  

  • Reagan ran a career average 56 percent job approval rating, tying Lyndon Johnson and a point below Bill Clinton. Three presidents scored higher – Kennedy, Eisenhower and the first President Bush. The average for all postwar presidents is 55 percent, just 1 point from Reagan’s tally.   
  • In an AP poll toward the end of his career, in November 1988, majorities rated Reagan positively for handling just three of 11 issues tested; on one, handling the deficit, he got a remarkable 82 percent disapproval.   
  • In a 1987 survey half of Americans saw Reagan as "out of touch with what is going on in the government." And in that close-of-career AP poll, his strongest ratings were for charisma (77 percent positive), his ability to communicate (74 percent) and leadership (60 percent). Only 45 percent rated him positively for his "judgment as president."  

The good news: History, it seems, can be kind.  

See the full retrospective here.

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