Ronald Reagan: The Greatest American Zero

President Ronald Reagan was given the honor of The Greatest American Ever as the result of a poll conducted in cooperation with a Discovery Channel presentation that narrowed down the candidates for that particular honor. According to many of those who defend this choice, Reagan deserves this honor in part because he brought back a sense of respect to Americans following the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis. According to Reagan’s own campaign slogan for the 1984 election, thanks to the previous four years of his Presidency, it was morning again in American.

Maybe someone just misspelled “mourning.” The budget deficit explosion that occurred during the 1980’s was a direct result of President Reagan’s tax cuts, and the resulting lack of available funds that could have been earmarked toward social programs contributed to the continuing deconstruction of American social programs. Reagan’s assault on these programs took as its starting point the conservative ideological foundation that if people rely upon government welfare strategies to provide them with such things as food, housing and help taking care of their children it will serve as a disincentive for them to work; therefore the less the government helps the poor, ultimately the more they will help themselves and the better off they will be.

President Reagan was a firm believer in this methodology and almost from the moment he took his oath of office set to work dismantling government entitlement programs. The first major step toward rolling back opportunities for those not lucky enough to be born into wealth took place when he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA). OBRA served to cut federal funding programs for the poor as well as inducements for states to provide funding. Unfortunately, cutting funding for programs was not enough to revolutionize the welfare programs in the way that conservative ideologues desired. In order to completely undermine the progressive system of entitlements to the poor, the Reagan administration began to use tax reform as a method of undercutting welfare.

By cutting taxes and instituting such concepts as the Earned Income Credit, Reagan–always the actor–gave the outward appearance of helping poor families. Unfortunately, those measly tax cut gains made barely a dent in the overall loss in benefits the poor were no longer receiving because of budget slashes and changes to entitlement programs. Throughout the Reagan presidency cuts and rollbacks to welfare programs were systematically enacted even as the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans reached peak proportions. While the wealthy were unquestionably benefiting from their huge tax cuts, the poor were actually losing ground because of them. When Reagan finally left office and his Vice President George Bush ascended to the Presidency in the election of 1988, Bush inherited historic budget deficits of over 3 trillion dollars. Deficits like these left little opportunity to increase spending on social programs even if he had desired to do so. Which, of course, he didn’t. After all, there was a war to be waged in Iraq. Remember, I’m talking about George Bush the First. Sometimes, it seems like the country went through a time machine and we’re reliving 1989-1992 all over again.

Because the enormous deficit threatened all spending programs, a budget compromise deal was cut in Congress. The compromise contained provisions to increase funding for many social programs that had been assaulted during the Reagan presidency. Despite the best efforts of the social progressives to spin these gains into a success story, the compromise required to ensure these budget increases came at the price of effectively undermining completely the very structure of program funding. For one thing, any budget gains that resulted from a reduction in spending on defense programs-which had skyrocketed during the Reagan era and therefore represented a potential goldmine-would go toward deficit reduction and would therefore not be eligible for spending on domestic programs. And secondly, any increase in spending on domestic programs would have to be offset by a reduction in spending on another domestic program. In other words, the government had to steal from Peter to pay Paul while Caesar sat around spending billions on lances and spears.

Without most people even realizing it was taking place, a profound shift in the paradigm toward government entitlement theory was created by the Reagan policies of tax cuts and deficits. Although no one in the Reagan/Bush administrations came out doing high-fives and boasting that they had undone the New Deal and Great Society efforts put forth by FDR and LBJ, that is essentially what happened. The exploding deficit led to an unavoidable clash of ideologies resulting in a compromise plan to cut the deficit that has left funding for social programs almost irrevocably altered to the detriment of the welfare state. Meanwhile, people like Jack Abramoff are giving our highest-paid federal employees-who were all wealthy to begin with-paid vacations and parties and dinners and gifts to ensure that what money isn’t being spent on the military and space programs designed to line the coffers of Bush’s big business buddies is going to whatever precious pork plan our leaders desire and not toward taking care of people who aren’t lucky enough to have born in the same class of wealth that they were.

So, one of the legacies of President Reagan–the Greatest American of All Time–was the significant deconstruction of the American social policy of taking care of those least able to take care of themselves.