I still think he was a terrible president, but recent events remind me of two things that Ronald Reagan did right during his eight years in office:
1) He clubbed foreign car companies into building plants in the US. This seems particularly important now that Chrysler is going bankrupt. As the Car Connection wrote shortly after his death (via me at HNN back in 2005):
Reagan also was a free trader and generally turned his bad ear on the demands from unions and Detroit executives such as Iacocca about imposing tough restrictions on Japanese imports. Reagan, however, was also a pragmatic politician and during the heat of the Presidential campaign in 1980, he agreed to support quotas on Japanese autos imports. The quotas were imposed but the end result was that it pushed the Japanese Big Three, Toyota, Honda and Nissan, to expedite the construction of new plants in the United States. Honda already had made plans to open a plant in the U.S. but the plant quickly expanded. The competition ultimately helped make American and foreign cars better.
While I’m at it, I might as well steal my own conclusion to that article:
Lest you think otherwise, I am not suggesting that protectionism is the solution to our problems. Free trade that runs in both directions is beneficial to all countries that participate in it. What I believe is that by taking protectionism completely off the table, this country is being taken advantage of by firms like Toyota that know they can build plants in Canada and still have completely unfettered access to the U.S. market.
My solution is to run trade more like Ronald Reagan did. Love the free market, but remember that a country can’t prosper with a trade policy that is all carrot and no stick.
Can you imagine an America without an auto industry? Those foreign-owned plants may be all we have left soon.
2) The other thing Reagan did right was to sign the international convention outlawing torture. Granted, that’s a pretty low bar, but George W. Bush managed to set the bar practically underground during his eight years in office.