Reagan's legacy remains a contested one, and it will be many years before historians will be able to gauge the full effect of his presidency. He set bold goals for his administration, but he paid so little attention to their implementation that his policies often veered in directions he had neither anticipated nor desired. He presided over a long period of prosperity, but one in which poverty increased and the wages of most working people remained stagnant. He was president during the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and he forged a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev that greatly defused historic tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; but he also became involved in a series of disastrous mis-adventures in the Middle East and the Third World that very nearly destroyed his administration. He engineered some of the most profound changes in economic policy in half a century; but he left the government burdened with three times as much debt as it had carried when he entered office.
About one thing, however, there can be little doubt. Reagan's extraordinary personality enabled him to dominate national politics in the 1980s in a way that no president since his boyhood idol, Franklin Roosevelt, had done. Reagan's high-spirited optimism, his unembarrassed patriotism, his soaring, symbol-laden oratory, and his jaunty, almost cock-sure public demeanor won him the admiration even of many Americans who disagreed with his policies. He helped restore to public discourse a heady sense of possibilities, a belief in America's moral superiority, and even a faith in leadership. It is clear that many (although far from all) Americans felt better about their society and its future in the 1980s than they had a decade earlier and than they would a decade later. And it is clear that the refurbished nationalism that Reagan so energetically promoted reached out through American culture and became one of the defining characteristics of the era.
The ebullience of the Reagan years faded quickly after his departure, replaced by an increasingly sour and pessimistic political climate and a growing cynicism about leaders and government. But for a moment in the midst of the nation's long, painful transition from its booming industrial past to its uncertain postindustrial future, Reagan allowed many Americans to believe that nothing had really changed—that the problems of the 1960s and 1970s had been mere aberrations, that the country's traditional values and traditional greatness remained intact. In a characteristically exuberant speech in 1986, Reagan himself captured much of what his presidency came to mean to Americans troubled by nearly two decades of turbulence and disillusionment, and eager for reassurance:
In this land of dreams fulfilled where greater dreams may be imagined, nothing is impossible, no victory is beyond our reach; no glory will ever be too great.. . . The world's hopes rest with America's future.. . . Our work will pale before the greatness of America's champions in the twenty-first century.