Barack Obama frequently reminds Americans that he took office during difficult economic times. But he’s certainly not the first president to have done so. What matters isn’t how the country was doing when you were elected; it’s where you lead the country once in office.
Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 102 today, was elected in 1980 with a mandate to reverse the “stagflation” of the Carter era. His First Inaugural Address established a framework he’d follow throughout his tenure. Reagan urged Americans to recall the achievements of the American Founders, in particular their confidence in self-government and individual freedom. Against liberalism’s reliance on bureaucracy, Reagan insisted that “government is the problem” and that ordinary Americans should be recognized as heroes.
For an America beset by economic woes and a vacillating foreign policy, Reagan exuded a confidence in the people exercising their freedom to revive America. He took great care to emphasize the achievements and responsibility of “this breed called Americans.” He wanted to reverse decades of federal policy and begin to push power out of Washington and return it to the states and the people.
Reagan presented himself as a follower of the Constitution. “Our Government,” he emphasized, “has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” The Constitution, with its restraints and emphasis on limited government, allows individual freedom to work for the common good. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Reagan made clear that his policies would respect the people. “From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Reagan recapitulates the Founders’ teaching on liberty, equality, consent, and self-government in these two eloquent sentences.
Reagan also trumpeted American exceptionalism and the attitude of ordinary Americans in his moving quotation from the diary of a hitherto obscure American casualty of World War I, Martin Treptow, who wrote: “I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”
It is for such a people—heroic yet humble, revolutionary but religious—that Reagan vowed to transform the federal government, fighting cheerfully and at his utmost. He succeeded. His policies of reducing tax rates and rebuilding the military helped trigger years of economic growth that lasted beyond his term of office. It’s a lesson we would do well to listen to again. Happy birthday, Mr. Reagan.