Was Ronald Reagan a good president?

Sunday, Feb. 6, will be the centenary of his birth. Looking at the Ronald Reagan presidency from today, can we get any sense of how he rates in history?

Dennis Cook/AP/File
In this Feb. 7, 1984 file photo, President Ronald Reagan addresses a crowd of well-wishers gathered for a huge birthday party in the Dixon High School gymnasium in Dixon, Ill. Sunday, Feb. 6, will be the centenary of his birth.

Ronald Reagan was a polarizing political figure. To his supporters, he was a giant – a US president who won the cold war, ended an era of big government, and filled the nation with a sense of purpose. To his critics, he was a dolt – an old guy who coddled tinhorn dictators while allowing both the US deficit and income inequality to explode.

Hmm. Not much middle ground there. But we’ve now had decades to look back on the Reagan era. Sunday, Feb. 6, will be the centenary of his birth. How good a president was the Gipper, really? Looking at it from today, can we get any sense of how he rates in history?

One thing is sure: Voters remember him fondly. They rated him the second greatest president of all time in a 2007 Gallup poll, behind Abraham Lincoln and ahead of John F. Kennedy.

That rating has been rising over the years. When he left office in 1989, his final approval rating was 63 percent. The corresponding figure for November 2010, was 74 percent, according to a Gallup survey. (That’s common, though: Ratings for JFK, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton are all higher today than they were when those guys were in office.)

What about historians? You know, the grumbling, tweedy professors who sit around the faculty dining room reading 18th-century wills. Aren’t they all liberals? They’ll probably hate him.

Well, they don’t rate Mr. Reagan as highly as the public does. But they don’t exactly lump him in with James Buchanan, either.

Reagan was the 10th best president of all time in a 2009 C-SPAN survey of 64 presidential historians. (If you can’t trust C-SPAN, whom can you trust? Nobody.) He ranked behind Woodrow Wilson. Bill Clinton came in at No. 15 of the 42 ex-presidents, in case you’re interested.

In individual leadership categories, Reagan rated as the third best president in public persuasion (that’s good – remember the Challenger speech?) and the 30th best president in terms of administrative skills. (That’s bad. Two words: Iran contra.)

IN PICTURES: Ronald Reagan through the years

Not every historian survey rates Reagan as highly as C-SPAN did. A poll of pointy-heads (just kidding!) from Siena College taken last July put him at No. 18.

More than likely, his reputation will float up and down in generations to come depending on what sorts of presidential qualities look good to voters and historians at the time.

“History is less about agreed-upon facts than about perceptions of who we are as a nation and how our leaders have either enhanced or tarnished that image we have of ourselves,” said Dr. Edna Greene Medford, a professor of history at Howard University, in a press release accompanying the 2009 C-SPAN survey.

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