Overstating Reagan's Effect on Public Opinion

01/31/2011 08:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brendan Nyhan Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

Time's cover story on Ronald Reagan's influence on President Obama opens with this anecdote (emphasis added):

In May 2010, Barack Obama invited a small group of presidential historians to the White House for a working supper in the Family Dining Room... [A]s the conversation progressed, it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln's team of rivals or Kennedy's Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office. Obama and Reagan share a number of gifts but virtually no priorities. And yet Obama was clearly impressed by the way Reagan had transformed Americans' attitude about government.

We can't be sure whether this passage accurately reflects Obama's thoughts about Reagan or the authors' own perceptions (they do quote Obama later saying, "What Reagan ushered in was a skepticism toward government solutions to every problem"). Either way, though, it's nonsense -- part of a creeping Grover Norquist-ism that distorts our understanding of Reagan's presidency.

I've repeatedly pointed out that Reagan's powers of persuasion have been wildly overstated. Contrary to the claims of John Judis, George Packer, and others, neither Reagan's thematic message nor his populist rhetoric prevented him from suffering politically as a result of the 1981-1982 recession. Similarly, despite the claims of his former chief of staff Ken Duberstein (who is quoted making a similar statement by Time), Reagan's high-profile speeches didn't build consensus for his agenda -- they often increased opposition to it, prompting his own pollster to suggest that he stop using that approach.

The same principle applies here. While Reagan scored some important legislative successes early in his term and was re-elected on the strength of a timely economic recovery, the claim that he "transformed Americans' attitude about government" is not well-supported. Consider UNC political scientist Jim Stimon's measure of public mood (Excel spreadsheet), which captures Americans' demand for more or less government spending over time*:


Stimson's data suggest that Reagan's election was a reflection, rather than a cause, of growing anti-government sentiment. Once Reagan took office and began to enact his agenda to reduce the size and scope of government, public demand for government actually grew, reflecting the thermostatic pattern Stimson documents. In other words, rather than decreasing demand for big government, Reagan's presidency actually increased it. Here's Stimson in his book Tides of Consent (83):

Conservatism peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan; it was not produced by him. The 1980s did see pretty fundamental change in Washington, but ... [t]he first 100 days or so of the Reagan administration produced it all. The spring of 1981 saw Reagan's tax cut, his one serious effort to limit domestic spending, and the buildup of defense. The rest of the Reagan years, and the 1980s generally, were a time of conservative retreat... [T]he nation saw then a public opinion that encouraged conservative action before it happened and then said "enough" when it did...

Specifically, the public shifted against Reagan in its preferences toward government spending during the 1981-1988 period (Tides of Consent, 8-9):

[A] trend was indeed under way. Something was going on out in the country. Millions of people, having moved away from supporting government spending in the late 1970s, were moving back in support in the 1980s. Those millions were barely perceptible in the survey numbers and hardly noticed in Washington. The percentages of those who thought that "too little" was being spent on education [previously 53% in 1980 and 56% in 1982] moved from 60 in 1983 to 64 in 1984, down to 60 in 1985, then 61 in 1986, 62 in 1987, 64 in 1988. And the opposite numbers advocating "too much" fell at the same time. Over the late years of the Reagan administration the percentages moved from 53 to 10 (83% too little) to 64 to 4 (94%). On the environment, it was the same, moving from 48 to 17 (74%) in 1980 to 65 to 5 (93%) at the close of the administration.

In reality, the primary political lessons of Reagan's presidency are (1) beat a weak incumbent in what is perceived to be a "mandate" election and (2) hope economic growth rebounds in the two years before your re-election. Obama's "bromance" with the phony narrative of Reagan's presidency is likely to lead him astray.

Update 1/31 2:19 PM: For more, see Jonathan Bernstein and also Greg Sargent, who notes an emerging Democratic strategy of trying to capitalize on public opposition to specific budget cuts:

[A]s I noted below, it seems more and more obvious that Obama and Dems are placing a heavy bet on the very phenomenon Nyhan pinpoints here: People suddenly start to like government once officials start talking specifics about how to downsize it in the real world. Not even Saint Ronald Reagan could talk them out of this apostasy.

Update 1/31 2:34 PM: Matthew Yglesias looks instead at policy outcomes, comparing the size and scope of the welfare state pre- and post-Reagan.

Update 2/1 12:42 PM: See also Paul Waldman.

* See Stimson's books Public Opinion In America, The Macro Polity (with Erikson and MacKuen), and Tides of Consent for much more on policy mood.

Cross-posted to