Ronald Reagan came to the American presidency in January 1981 after his impressive 1980 presidential election victory over President Jimmy Carter. Reagan, by most accounts, won the election essentially because he was not Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Reagan won his second impressive presidential election by defeating Walter Mondale, Carter's former vice-president. This time Reagan won specifically because he was a good leader known as Ronald Reagan. A majority of voters clearly responded to Reagan's personal leadership qualities and many even responded to some of Reagan's issue stands. By most accounts Reagan was viewed as a strong leader.
Reagan in his first term restored the strong presidency and lived up to the components of the macho presidential style. Reagan was strong and aggressive leader. He was portrayed as a winner, a competitor, and a sports fan. He was said to be decisive and competent. Moreover, he was not too emotional for the job. Reagan was tough. By 1984 he had become "Ronnie Rambo."
Reagan came to the presidency promising a return to the Eisenhower years or perhaps even the Coolidge years. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He wanted to get government "off the backs" of the people and he wanted to deregulate industry and big business. He wanted to cut taxes and to balance the budget. He promised to fight inflation and to allow the economy to grow. He promised a return to traditional values and to put God back in his country. He wanted to cut social spending and increase defense spending. He promised to get tough with terrorists and the Soviet Union. America would not be second to the USSR in military might according to Reagan.
Reagan scored points in his first year for reinstituting the macho presidential style. He demonstrated leadership by narrowing the presidential agenda and achieving victories on budget cuts, tax cuts, and arms deals. He showed that the presidency was not imperiled or impotent but it was an office that could work once again.
During his first year, he survived a killing attempt. This stroke of luck helped his presidential image by creating super-Reagan. Presidential watchers and columnists said he was a great communicator. His early successes in his administration were compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt's first one hundred days or to Lyndon Johnson's legislative successes in his first full year as president. It was said that Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan, restored glamour to the White House.
In 1982, Reagan's popularity remained relatively high even though the country suffered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Massive unemployment hurt Reagan's standing in the polls ever so slightly. Moreover, the Reagan administration began running up the largest deficits in U.S. history. By 1982, "Reaganomics" had different meanings for various groups, depending on whether one was winning under Reagan or losing. His foreign policy contained the strongest anti-Soviet rhetoric since the Kennedy administration and he embarked on the largest military buildup in American history in order to appear strong against the Soviet threat.
By 1983 Reagan was able to maintain his presidential popularity even in the face of controversies surrounding the death of U.S. marines in Lebanon and the invasion of Grenada. Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado dubbed Reagan the "Teflon President," because nothing appeared to attach to him.
In the 1984 election year Reagan was able to show his Teflon qualities by distancing himself from his politics. Reagan emerged again as the national leader, but his policies were not as popular as he was. The year 1984 witnessed the return of patriotism and "feeling good about America." It was the year of the Olympics, Bruce Springsteen, and, most important, it was the year of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter's vice-president, Walter Mondale. By winning his second presidential election in convincing style, Reagan, the "nice guy," staked a claim for presidential greatness that many presidential watchers found appealing.
Yet somewhere beyond Ronald Reagan's smile, other questions about his style of macho presidential leadership went unasked. Why was Reagan a Teflon president? Was the media going too soft on a popular president? Were Americans tired of negative criticisms about the presidency and no longer willing to listen to criticisms or dissent? Finally, was Ronald Reagan an imperial president? These questions all needed exploring during the Reagan first term but they were not seriously considered.
In the 1970s, after Arthur Schlesinger's work on the "imperial presidency" appeared, political scientists and presidential watchers picked up the term to describe a set of behavior exhibited by presidents in the institution of the presidency. The behaviors were characterized by excessive secrecy, isolation, deception, media manipulation, unilateral war making, imperialism, and a blatant disregard for Congress and public opinion. The Ford and Carter presidencies ushered in the post-Watergate presidency, and by the end of the Carter years some called the presidency the imperiled presidency rather than the imperial.
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The Reagan administration under his leadership was said to have returned the presidency to the stature of the strong presidency, a presidency that could work. No one used the term "imperial presidency" as a descriptive term for the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. Why was this the case?
If one makes an examination of the Reagan administration in terms of behaviors that were characteristically used to describe the behavior of imperial presidents, Reagan scores high. Just what has been the record of the Reagan administration with respect to excessive secrecy, isolation, deception, media manipulation, unilateral war making, imperialism, and blatant disregard for Congress and public opinion? Has he exhibited any imperial behavior and if so to what degree? If he has done this, why did presidential watchers not label him as an imperial president?
A search of the record of the Reagan administration for the first term reveals that Reagan clearly took enough actions in the categories that make up the imperial presidency to be labeled as an imperial president. His administration by most accounts has been one of the most secretive and isolated administrations of the twentieth century. Reagan has engaged in masterly deception and media manipulation. His record of the "secret" war in Nicaragua qualifies him in the unilateral war-making category and his invasion of Grenada qualifies him in the imperialism category. The only component of the imperial presidency that Reagan lacks is one that shows blatant disregard for Congress and the public.
Thus, on six out of seven measures of the imperial presidency, Reagan scores relatively high. Yet because Reagan has not shown a blatant disregard for Congress and the public, because the media and others have stopped labeling presidents as "imperial," and because Reagan is a "nice guy," the Reagan administration has been able to escape some of the criticisms for actions that in the Lyndon Johnson presidency and the Richard Nixon presidency were criticized. The 1980s environment has called for a return to the strong presidency and a return to the macho presidential style. If one labels a presidential action imperial one is criticizing the new national mood and would be regarded as a "wimp."
Ronald Reagan's recent bombing of Libya added new legends to Reagan's attempt to reestablish the macho presidential style in American presidential leadership. He had Libya bombed on a Monday night during prime-time news not so much to end terrorism but to send macho messages to Qaddafi and to the American people. The bombing was more for us than for any other purpose. It was carried out during national news time, becoming our first prime-time bombing. The purpose was to show the American people that our macho president would not take any flack from a third rate dictator. Since 1981 Reagan had elevated an obscure Arab leader to celebrity status in the world of super terrorists. Our national media provided Qaddafi with a forum and with the recognition he so desired. Reagan's rhetoric matched Qaddafi's word for word, slur for slur. Suddenly the Arab leader gained Hitlerian status in the United States as the "maddest" of the "mad men." Qaddafi called Reagan's hand with the Gulf of Sidra "Line of Death" challenge and Reagan responded with an easy military "victory." Qaddafi called for a new campaign against Americans and Reagan responded with retaliation for the Berlin disco killing of an American soldier. His response was a bombing raid on Libya. All of this was intended to be a victory for the macho style of the presidency. However, innocent citizens from both sides have died while Reagan and Qaddafi play out their games.
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In this era of renewed American patriotism, jingoism, Reagan mania, Rambo mania, and military buildup, it becomes necessary for a macho president to show a willingness to use force. The idea becomes "use it or lose it." Reagan has more than complied. He invaded Grenada in 1983 and lost 19 U.S. men in the invasion. It was a "victory" coming only a few days after a terrorist attack in Lebanon had killed 240 marines. Reagan has been trying to use force, terror, and the CIA to overthrow a government in Nicaragua since 1981. By all accounts he is engaged in state-sponsored terrorism when he tries to back the Contras. Yet to Reagan, there is a distinction between freedom fighters who are good and terrorists who are bad.
The bombing of Libya was to show Americans that Reagan meant business. It was to make Americans feel proud again. Those bombs were dropped to make us feel good about a humiliating defeat in Vietnam, to make us feel better about being held hostage 444 days by Iran, and to make us feel that the president was not impotent against terrorism. Ironically, Reagan, who in 1981 convinced Americans that he was the president who most wanted to fight terrorism, was the president who had lost the most American lives to terrorist attacks.
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Reagan dramatically achieved results as a Leader. He made America feel good again. The news media was supportive, the Congress was mostly quiet, and the vast majority of American citizens applauded the macho power play. Domestically, it showed how an American macho president can rally the citizens around the flag during a time of crisis. This was the clear objective of the bombings, because even the Reagan administration admitted the attack on Libya would not stop terrorism. It was a lashing out of sheer frustration.
The problem with the macho presidential style is that it excludes qualities of empathy, understanding, compassion, sympathy, sensitivity, caring, and nurturing from leadership qualities. Of more consequence is that by relying on the macho presidential style of leadership World War III could be provoked. So far Reagan has played the game only in Libya, Grenada, and Nicaragua.