The Reagan presidency began with an America in crisis. Inflation and recession choked the economy; humiliation in Vietnam and Iran had eroded its confidence in projecting power on the Cold War geopolitical stage even as the Soviets began expanding their empire into Afghanistan and a friendly dictatorship in Nicaragua fell to Leftist rebels. He shook up Washington with his simple faith in the free market and tax cuts to solve economic problems, and with the projection of military power, directly or via proxies, as the means of taking the fight to the Soviet Union, which he famously proclaimed an "Evil Empire" with which there could be no accommodation. He ran up massive deficits in order to pile on the pressure by spending billions of dollars on new weapons systems with which the Soviets struggled to keep up. There was, at the same time, plenty of statesmanlike accommodation, particularly in seizing the opportunities represented by the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist leadership to reduce tensions and negotiate new arms control agreements. When the Soviet empire began to crumble within a year of his leaving office, President Reagan's supporters credited him with having forced the collapse by piling on the military pressure. They also proclaim the economic boom of the 1990s the legacy of the Reagan tax cuts.
President Reagan restored America's can-do self-belief his "Morning in America" slogan resonated with an electorate ready to hear that things were getting better even before objective indicators confirmed that fact. And that optimism and confidence in itself helped to turn things around. Today, politicians of both parties routinely seek to capture some of the Reagan magic. There was the easy average-Joe charisma in his every communication with his electorate; the proclamation of moral clarity that framed political choices in terms of core beliefs; the strategy (mimicked by President Clinton) of using his skills as a communicator to appeal directly to the electorate over the heads of Congress when it was in the hands of his enemies; even the famous "Teflon" coating that allowed him to maintain his political momentum oblivious to the damage that might have been caused by such major scandals as Iran-Contra.
For Republicans in particular, Ronald Reagan and his legacy have become the guiding political compass of their party. To be sure, the guiding principles of the presidency of George W. Bush are those introduced by President Reagan: Smaller government, reduced taxes and the confident projection of military against perceived threats abroad. Reagan believed America had paralyzed itself in the wake of the bruising it suffered in Vietnam, and saw reversing that psychology of caution over the use of force as an important goal if the confrontation with communism was to be pursued. He bombed Libya in 1986 after determining that it had authored a terror attack on U.S. servicemen in Berlin, and sent U.S. troops to invade the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada and topple its leftist government as a warning to others in the region to avoid drawing too close to the Soviets and Cuba. There were setbacks, of course the 1983 bombing by Hezbollah of a Marine barracks in Beirut that saw 241 U.S. soldiers killed, and prompted a hasty withdrawal that was later cited by al-Qaeda as evidence of American weakness. And the Iran-Contra scandal exposed a seamy side to the administration's proxy wars. Still, on balance his decade is remembered as one in which America recovered from the setbacks of the 1970s to resume its role as the visionary strategic leader of the Western world in facing down all challenges.
Long after his bones are interred, Ronald Reagan's ideas will continue to shape the way America's politicians discuss questions of national security, the role of government and how to keep the economy humming. If FDR defined the political landscape for decades after his death, the "New Deal" era properly ended with Ronald Reagan. And many years may pass between Ronald Reagan's death, and the end of the political era he proclaimed.