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Ronald Reagan Remains Potent Republican Icon

Former first lady Nancy Reagan is helped on stage by Frederick J. Ryan Jr., center, Reagan Foundation Chairman, as Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn looks on after a wreath laying ceremony at memorial of her husband, former US President Ronald Reagan during
Former first lady Nancy Reagan is helped on stage by Frederick J. Ryan Jr., center, Reagan Foundation Chairman, as Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn looks on after a wreath laying ceremony at memorial of her husband, former US President Ronald Reagan during

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Americans are marking former President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday this month and are reflecting on his political legacy.

Reagan served as president from 1981 until 1989 and died in 2004. Public opinion polls show Ronald Reagan remains popular today, and that is a big reason why many Republicans, and even some Democrats, like to mention his name in current political debates.

His political legacy remains potent, especially for Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012.

When Reagan was elected president in 1980, conservatives referred to it as the Reagan Revolution, an emphasis on smaller government, lower taxes and restoring America’s pride.

Reagan Revolution

When he left office in 1989, President Reagan took note in his farewell address from the Oval Office.

"They called it the ‘Reagan Revolution’, and well, I will accept that," said Reagan. "But for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense."

Today, Reagan remains an icon for many Republicans on the national scene, including several contemplating a presidential run next year. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was the featured speaker at an event honoring Reagan sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation.

Invoking Reagan

"I probably consider myself a Western conservative in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, in that tradition, because I know that he understood the small town pioneering spirit and values of hard work and rugged individualism and love thy neighbor," said Palin.

But it is not only Republicans who like to invoke the name of the 40th U.S. president. President Barack Obama refers to Ronald Reagan and his legacy from time to time, and made this comment while running for president in 2008.

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," said Obama. "He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, 'we want clarity, we want optimism.'"

American spirit

During last year’s congressional election campaign, scores of Republican candidates made references to Ronald Reagan and pledged to live up to his political legacy of smaller government and restoring America’s spirit.

It is expected that those Republicans who decide to seek their party’s presidential nomination next year also will make frequent mention of Reagan’s name and will try to cast themselves in the Reagan model of a conservative leader willing to stand for principles.

Historians note some ironies in Reagan’s political legacy. Although he cut tax rates as president, Reagan approved of several tax increases during his time in office. He also presided over a growing federal government, despite his pledge to reduce it.

Even some who remain critical of the former president and his record acknowledge that he often demonstrated leadership while in office. Presidential biographer Richard Reeves, who teaches at the University of Southern California, said, "Ronald Reagan ranks as a man who may or may not have been a great president. Most of the people here think he was a great president. Some of us have reservations. But he was a great leader and he was great at being president. He understood the presidency."

Reeves said Reagan also has earned his place as one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, especially in uniting economic and social conservatives, who often were at odds with each other.

Principled leadership

"There would be no conservative movement of note if it were not for Ronald Reagan," said Reeves. "One thing that holds them together at the center, the nucleus, is Ronald Reagan."

Reagan remains popular not just with conservatives, but with Americans from across the political spectrum.

Many of his most ardent defenders say he will be best remembered for rekindling a national spirit and optimism at a time when the economy was troubled and Americans were questioning their place in the world.

James Baker served as President Reagan’s chief of staff and treasury secretary, and recently spoke at the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

"He helped us rediscover who we were. He reminded us of our history and he challenged us to have big dreams about where we are going. When all is said and done, that may be his greatest legacy," said Baker.

Public-opinion polls in recent years often rank Ronald Reagan as among the most popular U.S. presidents in history, a group that includes Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

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