What US Scholars Think of the Reagan Presidency. He restored prestige of White House, but doubts on policies persist. PRESIDENTIAL REPORT CARD
AS President Reagan winds up an eventful eight-year term of office, presidential historians rank him as a remarkable leader who, whatever the merits of his policies, has left a strong imprint on the national consciousness. It will take the passage of time to completely evaluate the Reagan presidency. But current assessments by scholars of various persuasions reflect a degree of unanimity. Some conclusions:
Although not a hands-on chief executive, Mr. Reagan helped restore confidence in the institution of the presidency.
By his firm, simple convictions and determination, he turned around the direction of the country, though his policies were not always wise.
He made masterful use of the bully pulpit and symbols, setting a modern-day standard for presidential communication.
He proved not to be a rigid ideologue, leaving a constructive legacy of improved superpower relations.
He will be rated well loved by the American people, as a good and decent man, despite the fact that his policies were not fully supported.
Fred Greenstein, a Princeton biographer of Dwight Eisenhower, gives Reagan mixed reviews for his leadership skills.
``In certain respects he was unusually passive in terms of engagement in subtler issues and seemed so insensitive to the workings of policy,'' Professor Greenstein says. ``But the amount of energy that went into persuasion is very impressive and contributed to reinvigorating the institution of the presidency.''
It is generally agreed that after Vietnam, Watergate, and the Carter presidency, which was perceived as weak, Americans needed a period of reassurance. ``It's clear the country felt it had been humiliated, and Reagan established a sense of pride,'' says Betty Glad, a biographer of Jimmy Carter. ``That was largely symbolic, because he traded off the mistakes of Carter. ... But he will be seen as a remarkable president. He showed that the presidency could be used to shape the national agenda.''
In the view of some scholars, Reagan better defined the presidency by effectively demonstrating that a president cannot be expected to do everything but must have a clear-cut goal and a doable agenda.
``He passes on a healthy office to George Bush in the sense that he generally lowered expectations on the office,'' says Hugh Heclo, author of ``The Illusion of Presidential Power.'' ``He made it seem all right that he did not have all the answers or hear all the questions.''
``The office is still the focal point of political leadership, and people will expect one or two big answers,'' says Dr. Heclo, who teaches at George Mason University. ``But I don't think there'll be a wholesale turning to Bush to find all the answers to drugs, inner cities, and other problems.''
James Sundquist, scholar emeritus at the Brookings Institution, suggests that the presidents who stand out in history have been strong and effective, but also wise. By that standard, he says, Reagan will not make the top list.
``He was a strong president and imposed his policies on the country,'' Mr. Sundquist says. ``He turned the whole trend of American government around. We were headed in the direction of the welfare state and all Republicans could do before was to slow the trend. Reagan halted it.''
As for the wisdom of his policies, Sundquist adds, history will have to write that chapter. In the foreign and military area, he says, Reagan has been a success, not making any serious blunders.
``On the domestic side he will be judged a disaster - this horrendous deficit and the fact that we've lost our trading position in the world,'' Sundquist says.
Thomas E. Cronin, author of ``The State of the Presidency,'' is similarly ambivalent. ``The public estimate of him now and in the future will be higher than the historians' assessment,'' he says. ``Scholars will raise tougher questions - about grandchildren paying the price for the high interest on debt, about his insensitivity to women and civil rights.''
But in terms of governance, Dr. Cronin says, Reagan leaves office more positively than the scholar thought he would. ``Out of the list of 40 [presidents] he's above the 20 mark,'' Cronin says.
``In terms of his `presence,' outlook, and his ability to project a certain kind of goodness, he ranks near the top,'' agrees Stephen Wayne, a White House scholar at George Washington University. ``He's made us feel good about the presidency and the country.''
But, Mr. Wayne says, while times are good and Reagan leaves with a ``halo around his head,'' it is not clear he will survive the verdict of history. ``There may be a price we have to pay down the road for this prosperity. If historians can provide evidence that the roots of our problems were sown during the Reagan years, his evaluation will deterioriate.''
Not everyone gives Reagan high marks, even for leadership. It is acknowledged that he managed to achieve his domestic objectives in the first two years, when Congress passed an economic package that launched a massive military buildup, reduced taxes, and cut domestic spending. But after that the Reagan juggernaut slowed - except for tax reform, passed early in the second term with bipartisan support.
``His presidency was a failure in terms of executive leadership,'' observes James McGregor Burns, author of ``The Power to Lead.'' ``He had a good two years ... but then he failed to follow through.''
But Professor Burns says the failure was due not so much to Reagan personally as to the system of governmental checks and balances that any president faces.
Burns says, however, that Reagan will be remembered for making the Republican Party into a ``coherent, pragmatic, ideologically conservative party.''
Heclo says Reagan presided over a general stalemate in national life, when problems stockpiled in the country. The presidential analyst faults him for not teaching people about realities. ``He helped them live with their anxieties but not ... to deal with the roots of their concerns,'' Heclo says.