I agree with Brendan Nyhan and others that Ronald Reagan didn’t actually change Americans’ attitude toward government that much. What’s more, to the extent that attitudes did change, it was mainly thanks to a backlash against 70s liberalism that would have happened with or without Reagan.
Still, when Paul Waldman suggests that Reagan’s popularity is a myth too, I think he takes a step too far. Reagan is pretty popular! With the exception of our weird ongoing love affair with John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton are routinely chosen in polls as the most popular postwar presidents. Likewise, Reagan and Clinton were basically tied for the highest approval rating when they left office.
This isn’t too hard to understand, either. People mostly associate Reagan with recovery from a lousy economy, they associate him with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and they associate him with rebuilding America’s prestige in the world. Maybe this is right, maybe it’s not, but it’s pretty understandable.
Generally speaking, even decades later presidents are mostly judged by how they did and how things were going during their last year in office. Things were going great for Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton, so they’re remembered very favorably. Things were going decently for Eisenhower, Ford, and Bush Sr., and they’re remembered decently. Things were going badly for LBJ, Nixon, Carter, and Bush Jr., and they’re remembered badly. The main exception seems to be Truman, who ended his presidency on a sour note but has since recovered pretty well.
In any case, maybe Reagan deserves his popularity, maybe he doesn’t. Still, he’s a pretty popular guy.