Reagan's charm, geniality, and ability to connect with average citizens as well as world leaders earned him the nickname "The Great Communicator." Through his speeches and actions, Reagan restored the confidence of the American public in the office of the president. Decades after he left office, Reagan's legacy remained strong with admirers wanting to add his portrait to Mount Rushmore and to US currency
Crime: On Oct. 2 1982, Reagan launched a "War on Drugs" that helped reduce the high rate of casual drug use lingering from the 1970s. He increased funding for the drug war from $1.5 billion in 1981 to $2.75 billion in 1986. Reagan also signed eight major Executive Orders related to crime and justice as well as five major crime bills: Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1984, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
Defense: Reagan strengthened the weak, ineffectual, and vulnerable military which Carter left behind. The Reagan administration funded research and development of weapons systems, including stealth technology and precision weaponry, later used in both Persian Gulf wars. Reagan's largest peacetime defense buildup in history, which included larger training ranges and military pay increases, helped invigorate the American military from its Vietnam War-era despondency.
Economy: Reagan's economic policies, such as a reduction in government spending and regulation and cuts in taxes, resulted in an unprecedented 92-month long economic boom, from Nov. 1982 to July 1990, with expansion and growth in the GDP (+36%), employment (+20 million jobs), and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (+15%).
Education: After "A Nation at Risk", a negative report on the nation's educational system, was released in Apr. 1983, President Reagan increased the budget for the Department of Education by $6 billion over the next three years. During the Reagan Administration, state education aid increased 20%, or almost $35 billion and, in 1988, it comprised a nearly 50% slice of revenue from all sources for education.
Environment: Between 1982 and 1988, Reagan signed 43 bills designating more than 10 million acres of federal wilderness areas in 27 states. This acreage accounted for nearly 10% of the National Wilderness Preservation System at the time. Reagan had signed more wilderness bills than any other president since the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964.
Foreign Policy: Reagan helped bring an end to the 46-year-old Cold War, through a combination of hostile, anti-communist rhetoric and a massive arms buildup followed by skillful diplomacy and disarmament. On Nov. 9, 1989, just over two years after his famous Brandenburg Gate speech, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of communism in Germany. On Dec. 15, 1991, after four bilateral summits with Reagan, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union.
Health: On Apr. 7, 1986, Reagan signed the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) into law. As of Sep. 30, 2010, COBRA is still in effect and gives some workers who lose their health benefits, for example in situations such as job loss or reduction in hours worked, the right to choose to continue health benefits provided by their employer's group health plan.
Labor: When Reagan followed through on his Aug. 3, 1981 threat to fire 12,176 striking air traffic controllers (PATCO), he held the controllers to their signed affidavit stating that they would not "participate [in any strike] while an employee of the Government of the United States." Reagan brought in military air traffic controllers as replacements to ensure there was no disruption of a major public service. His actions helped curtail future frivolous strikes as they plummeted from an average of 300 each year in the decades before the PATCO strike to fewer than 30 in 2006.
Science/Technology: Reagan was a big supporter of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). In his 1984 State of the Union Address, Reagan announced plans for what came to be the International Space Station. On Jan. 30, 1987, Reagan also announced that he planned to fund the building of the Superconducting Super Collider, a $4.5 billion dollar particle accelerator used for high energy physics research.
Social Policy: To "finally break the poverty trap," as Reagan stated in his 1987 State of the Union Address, he signed the Family Support Act on Oct. 12, 1988. The Act required states to establish and operate a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program (JOBS) to assure needy families with children obtain the training and employment necessary to avoid long-term welfare. Reagan also helped save Social Security by passing the Social Security Reform Act of 1983. It provided extra revenue dedicated to securing the solvent future of Social Security.
Taxes: Through massive tax cuts, Reagan helped restore an economy that had both high inflation and unemployment left over from the 1970s. As he brought taxation down from 70% to 28%, Reagan proved that reducing excessive tax rates stimulates growth, increases economic activity, and boosts tax revenues. Government revenues from income tax rose from $244 billion in 1980 to $446 billion in 1989.
Other: Reagan helped to reduce inefficiencies in the federal bureaucracy. When Reagan took office, it took seven weeks to get a Social Security card and 43 days to get a passport. By the time he left office, both could be had in 10 days.
Character: Reagan's hands-off leadership style manifested into an inability to control his administration from potentially illegal activities, e.g. the "Iran-Contra" scandal. His "troika," the nickname given to Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, and Counselor Edwin Meese, made many of Reagan's key administrative decisions for him.
Crime: In a Sep. 28, 1981 speech to the International Chiefs of Police, Reagan claimed that people who commit violent crimes "are not desperate people seeking bread for their families; crime is the way they've chosen to live." This attitude failed to address the stark realities underlying crime, namely the national culture of poverty and discrimination. Violent crime nationwide increased 21% from 1981-1989. The "War on Drugs" wasted billions of dollars and escalated drug-related crime.
Defense: Reagan increased the defense budget for an unprecedented six consecutive years. This spending produced an unsustainable bubble in the defense industry that led to decades of restructuring. By the early 1990s the defense industry had too many factories and too many workers to support with its smaller budgets. For example, in the early 1980s there were 50 large defense suppliers to the US government. By 2004 there were five.
Economy: Reagan pledged during his 1980 campaign for president to balance the federal budget, but never submitted a balanced budget in his eight years in office. In 1981, the deficit was $79 billion and, in 1986, at the peak of his deficit spending, it stood at $221 billion. The federal debt was $994 billion when he took office in 1981 and grew to $2.9 trillion when his second term ended in 1989. Reagan also added more trade barriers than any other president since Hoover in 1930. US imports that were subject to some form of trade restraint increased from 12% in 1980 to 23% in 1988.
Education: In his two terms in office, Reagan slashed federal aid to schools by more than $1 billion, and he cut the Department of Education budget by 19%. One of Reagan's campaign promises was to abolish the Department of Education, which he considered a "bureaucratic boondoggle." After intermittent attempts to fulfill this promise, he gave up in 1983 due to lack of Congressional support.
Environment: As a president who said "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do," Reagan issued leases for oil, gas, and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands. Reagan's appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Anne Gorsuch, tried to gut the 1972 Clean Water Act, cut EPA funding by 25%, and mismanaged a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste dumps.
Foreign Policy: Reagan broke his own vows not to make deals with terrorists or states that aided them. In the "Iran-Contra" scandal, Reagan's administration bypassed congressional restrictions on aiding Nicaragua's Contra guerilla fighters, in part by diverting money to them from the sale of missiles to Iran. Reagan also initiated military involvement in Libya, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Lebanon.
Health: Reagan almost completely ignored the growing AIDS epidemic. Although the first case of AIDS was discovered in the early 1980s, Reagan never publicly addressed the epidemic until May 31, 1987 when he spoke at an AIDS conference in Washington, DC. By that time, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and 20,849 had died.
Labor: On Aug. 3, 1981, Reagan ordered 12,176 striking air traffic controllers (PATCO) back to their jobs, disregarding the workers' complaints of stress, staff shortages, and outdated equipment. PATCO was one of the few unions that had endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan repaid them by giving them only 48 hours to cancel the strike and banning them from federal service for life. The ban was not lifted until 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
Science/Technology: Reagan's over-ambitious space-based laser strategic defensive system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars," proved to be too technically complex and expensive to complete. From its inception in 1983 to its demise in 1993, the program cost taxpayers $33 billion dollars.
Social Policy: Reagan believed that widespread freeloading plagued welfare and social programs. As Reagan slashed spending in his first term on programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing, the poverty rate climbed from 12% to 15% and unemployment rose from 7% to 11%.
Taxes: Reagan's "voodoo" economic policy, where tax cuts were believed to somehow generate tax revenues, failed to account for his administration's excessive spending which increased from $591 billion in 1980 to $1.2 trillion in 1990. Reagan both increased and cut taxes. In 1980, middle-income families with children paid 8.2% in income taxes and 9.5% in payroll taxes. By 1988 their income tax was down to 6.6%, but payroll tax was up to 11.8%, a combined increase in taxes. Reagan pushed through Social Security tax increases of $165 billion over seven years.
Other: Reagan opposed many important civil rights measures that further alienated him and the Republican Party from African-Americans. On Mar. 16, 1988, Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act. He was opposed to extending provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He initially opposed making Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. He was also loyal to apartheid South Africa, considering that country a friend and ally.