Reagan's story was one from the movies. He was raised in a poor family in small towns of northern Illinois, and rose from rags to riches. He graduated from Eureka College in 1932 and his smooth, reassuring voice allowed him to workd as a sports announcer on several regional radio stations. At one time he broadcasted Chicago Cubs baseball games remotely, using his powerful imagination to describe games that he couldn't even see. On a trip to California in 1937, he found work as an actor and went on to star in a number of major productions, though by his own admission, he was largely a B-film actor. Of his films, Reagan joked, "the producers didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday". Reagan was twice elected President of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union for actors. In that role he worked to eliminate the Communist influence in the industry.
In the 1950s, as his film career was declining, Reagan moved into television. General Electric, sponsor of his show "Death Valley Days", used him was a motivational speaker at their factories. Reagan had been a Democrat, but he changed allegiances in 1962, claiming, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, it left me." He became a staunch conservative and switched to the Republican Party. In 1964, Reagan gave a famous speech entitled "A Time for Choosing", a call for voters to support Barry Goldwater's foundering presidential campaign. It didn't do much for Goldwater, but it earned Reagan national prominence and notoriety as a new conservative spokesman. From this he was able to build a network of supporters, and in 1966 he was elected as the 33rd Governor of California.
As governor, Reagan raised taxes in order to turn a state budget deficit into a surplus. He challenged the protesters at the University of California, and ordered in National Guard troops during a period of protest movements in 1969. Voters seemed to appreciate his tough, common sense approach, and he was re-elected in 1970.
Reagan twice ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination, in 1968 and 1976. But the third time was the charm. Four years later in 1980, he won the nomination and defeated incumbent president Jimmy Carter. At 69 years, 349 days of age at the time of his first inauguration, Reagan was the oldest person to have assumed office, a record that would last until Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017 at age 70 years, 220 days. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 when he defeated former vice president Walter Mondale, winning the most electoral votes of any U.S. president, 525, or 97.6 percent of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.
In his first inaugural address, Reagan would famously tell voters that "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." Soon after taking office, Reagan began implementing sweeping new political and economic changes. He adopted supply-side economic policies, something the medial labeled as "Reaganomics". He called for tax rate reduction as a means to spur economic growth. He also pressed for economic deregulation, and reduction in government spending. Early in his first term, he survived an assassination attempt. He also declared a War on Drugs, and he fought the demands of public sector labor. In one famous encounter, he threatened to fire all striking air traffic controllers unless they returned to work. The strikers backed down and Americans were impressed by the firm resolve of their President. In 1982, he signed a bill extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 years and he signed legislation creating the Martin Luther King Day federal holiday.
Over his two terms as President, Reagan's economic policies appeared to enjoy success. Inflation dropped from 12.5% to 4.4%, and the average annual growth of real GDP was 3.4%. Mortgage interest rates dropped considerably as well. Reagan enacted cuts in domestic discretionary spending, and he also cut taxes. But military spending increased significantly, contributing to increased federal spending overall, even after adjustment for inflation.
Foreign affairs was the centerpiece of his second term. The Cold War would end, but not on Reagan's watch. That would happen during the tenure of his successor. Reagan had to address the bombing of Libya, the Iran–Iraq War, and the Iran–Contra affair, a scandal which raised suspicion about whether or not Reagan had traded arms for hostages. In June 1987, four years after he publicly described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire", Reagan challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!", during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate.The remark was prescient. Reagan transitioned Cold War policy from détente to rollback. He escalated an arms race with the USSR while engaging in talks with Gorbachev. The strategy was designed to bankrupt the Soviets and it worked. The talks culminated in the INF Treaty, which shrank both countries' nuclear arsenals. The Berlin Wall fell just ten months after the end of his term. Germany reunified the following year, and on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.
When Reagan left office in 1989, he held an approval rating of 68 percent, tied for the highest approval rating for a departing president. Reagan had planned an active post-presidency, but in November 1994, he disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier that year. His public appearances became more infrequent as the disease progressed. He died at home on June 5, 2004.
Reagan began a realignment toward conservative policies in the United States. Today he is considered to be an icon among conservatives, even though his brand of conservatism was not as extreme as many who adopt him as role model. Conversely, liberals have vilified Reagan for his staunch conservatism. For example, a recent biography of Reagan in the American Presidents Series was very disparaging of Reagan, alleging that his many accomplishments happened in spite of him, rather than because of him. The editors selected Jacob Weisberg, former editor of the liberal publication Slate Magazine to write the volume rather than someone with a more objective perspective.
But generally, evaluations of his presidency among historians and the general public place him among the upper tier of American presidents. Supporters have pointed to his rehabilitation of the economy as a result of Reagan's economic policies, as well as his foreign policy triumphs, which set the stage for a peaceful end to the Cold War. They also credit Reagan with a restoration of American pride and morale. Reagan is credited with a strong love for his nation, and a desire to restore faith in the American Dream. This was even more compelling, following a decline in American confidence and self-respect under Jimmy Carter's perceived weak leadership, especially during the Iran hostage crisis. Reagan's critics blame his economic policies resulted in rising budget deficits, a wider gap between rich and poor, and an increase in homelessness. Although Reagan was not personally blamed for any wrongdoing in the Iran–Contra affair, his critics do not accept these findings.
Today opinions of Reagan tend to go to extremes, depending on the perspective of the author. Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, credits Reagan with helping to create "a safer, freer world. He took an America suffering from malaise and made its citizens believe again in their destiny." But Mark Weisbrot, co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, describes Reagan's economic policies as "mostly a failure". It's doubtful that those who saw 20% interest rates disappear under Reagan's watch would share this opinion. Despite the continuing debate surrounding his legacy, one thing that conservative and liberal scholars agree on is that Reagan has been the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He left his mark on American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics. Reagan rehabilitated conservatism after the philosophy had been considered to be marginal extreme as espoused by Goldwater and others. Reagan is credited with turning the nation to the right, using a more pragmatic conservatism that balanced ideology with political expediency and which called for faith in American exceptionalism.
Reagan's major achievement was how his policies brought an end to the Cold war and the break-up of the USSR, causing the U.S. to become the world's only superpower. In 1989 the Kremlin lost control of all its East European satellites. In 1991, Communism was overthrown in the USSR, and on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Gennadi Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman under Gorbachev, said that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was "very successful blackmail. The Soviet economy couldn't endure such competition." Reagan's aggressive rhetoric gave encouragement to the East-European citizens opposed to communism. General Secretary Gorbachev described Reagan as "a man who was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War." Former President Lech Wałęsa of Poland acknowledged, "Reagan was one of the world leaders who made a major contribution to communism's collapse." It is difficult to find assessments such as those of Jacob Weisberg as credible in light of the views of those like Gorbachev and Walesa.
Reagan reshaped the Republican party, creating the modern conservative movement. He changed the political landscape of the United States. He even attracted a number of "Reagan Democrats". After leaving office, Reagan became an iconic influence within the Republican party and his policies and beliefs have been frequently invoked by Republican presidential candidates since 1988. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain often said that he came to office as "a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution." Reagan's popularity has increased since 1989. Gallup polls in 2001 and 2007 ranked him number one or number two when those surveyed were asked for the greatest president in history. Reagan ranked third of post–World War II presidents in a 2007 Rasmussen Reports poll, fifth in an ABC 2000 poll, ninth in another 2007 Rasmussen poll, and eighth in a late 2008 poll by British newspaper The Times. In a Siena College survey of over 200 historians, Reagan ranked sixteenth out of 42. The 2009 Annual C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leaders ranked Reagan the 10th greatest president. The survey of leading historians rated Reagan number 11 in 2000. In 2011, the Institute for the Study of the Americas placed Reagan as the eighth greatest U.S. president.
It was remarkable that although Reagan was the oldest president up to that time, he had good support among young voters, who began an alliance that shifted many of them to the Republican party. Reagan also had a disarming sense of humor throughout his presidency and like Lincoln, he was famous for his storytelling. Subsequent Presidents have tried to imitate his avuncular style, none as successfully. In the modern era of polarized politics, Reagan continues to be loved by the right and mocked by the left.