Reagan Lesson - Critical Thinking Exercises

What Do You Think?

Presidential scholar Charles O. Jones writes that “the slate is not clean following an election. Government is enduring, leadership changes.”*

  • What are some of the basic things that governments must do or functions that government must perform?
  • How do continuing problems such as the state of the economy, unemployment, and the federal debt influence a president’s policy options on moving into the White House? How did those continuing problems affect Ronald Reagan’s policy options? How do they affect the current president’s policy options?
  • How did leadership styles differ among Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan?
  • How important is presidential leadership style? Why? What evidence can you offer to support your position?
  • How and why are incoming presidents influenced by their predecessors? For example, why has George Washington continued to serve as a role model for presidents to this day? Why did Franklin Roosevelt serve as a role model for Ronald Reagan?

Assessing the Quality of a President’s Job Performance

A noted political scientist has identified six qualities that a concerned citizen can use to assess the quality of a president’s job performance.** Work with a study partner or a small group to consider Ronald Reagan’s job performance as the nation’s fortieth president of the United States using these six criteria. Be prepared to support your assessment with evidence.

  1. Effectiveness as a Public Communicator—Initiates and maintains contact and conversation with governmental and public audiences. Ability to reassure, persuade, inspire.
  2. Organizational Capacity—Ability to select well-qualified individuals as aides and mold them into an effective team.
  3. Political Skill—Ability to work with others by engaging in political “give-and-take” to gain support for preferred policies.
  4. Policy Vision—A sense of direction. Actions guided by an overarching set of objectives/goals.
  5. Cognitive Style—A broader, more strategic intelligence that cuts to the heart of problems and identifies their policy implications.
  6. Emotional Intelligence—Capacity to identify with other human beings—their hopes and aspirations, as well as their problems and challenges. Empathy. Compassion/Sensitivity.

Examining the President’s Use of Executive Power in the Role of Commander in Chief

The Constitution declares only that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States” and that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.” No further explanations or descriptions of those powers are given. As a result, Justice Robert Jackson said, “These cryptic words have given rise to some of the most persistent controversies in our constitutional history.”1 They have led to what he described as a “twilight zone,”2 and what constitutional scholar Erwin Corwin called “an invitation to struggle” between Congress and presidents.3

The Constitution also says that “Congress shall have power … to declare war” and “to raise and support Armies.” Nonetheless, only five of the twelve major wars that this country has fought have followed a formal declaration of war by Congress. Presidents, however, have asserted their right to send troops abroad on their own authority on more than 200 instances.4

This lesson describes one of those instances: Ronald Reagan’s invasion of the island nation of Grenada. To put that instance into historical perspective and to examine how and why other presidential assertions of authority have set off controversies with Congress, consider some other examples.

Work in groups of three to five students. Each group should select one of the historic examples listed below and answer the questions following this list. Prepare a short presentation for the class.

  • 1801 – Thomas Jefferson sends navy to confront the Barbary Pirates.
  • 1845 – James K. Polk sends troops to Mexico in dispute over Texas.
  • 1861 – Abraham Lincoln blockades southern ports and declares martial law.
  • 1940 – Franklin Roosevelt sends fifty destroyers to England to be used against Germany.
  • 1950 – Harry Truman sends troops to South Korea to repulse a North Korean attack.
  • 1961 – John F. Kennedy directs the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
  • 1960s to 1970s – Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon expand military engagement in Vietnam.
  • 1990–1991 – President George H.W. Bush sends troops to liberate Kuwait after an Iraqi invasion.

  • What were the historical circumstances that led to the president’s action?
  • What were the reasons the president gave for taking action?
  • How did Congress respond to the president’s actions?
  • How did American citizens respond to the president’s action?
  • In what ways, if any, did this action affect the relationship between Congress and the presidency and the distribution of power between those two branches of government?

What Do You Think?

“Presidents usually exert these extraordinary powers in foreign rather than domestic crises, as when Truman ordered American troops into Korea in 1950…Clinton sent troops to Haiti in 1994 and to Bosnia in 1995 … and [George W. Bush] in 2001-2002 sent American soldiers and airmen to Afghanistan…and in 2003 sent the armed forces to invade Iraq.

The War Powers Act of 1974 was designed to limit the president’s power to take this kind of action without congressional approval, but, in fact, it has restrained presidents very little. No one doubts that in any future crises, especially in foreign affairs, presidents will again bypass the ordinary policymaking process and do what they feel needs to be done.”*** Do you agree or disagree with the opinion expressed here? Why or why not?

» Why do you think presidents are more likely to act on their own authority in foreign rather than domestic crises?

» What are the benefits or advantages of allowing the president to act quickly and on his own authority in a crisis? What are the costs or disadvantages?

» The Constitution gives Congress some very broad and sweeping powers such as:

  • to raise and support Armies
  • to provide and maintain a Navy
  • to make Rules for the Government and Regulations of the land and naval forces
  • to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense
  • to make all Laws which shall be necessary for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Office thereof (Article I Sec. 8)
» Why do you think Congress has been hesitant to use any or all of those powers, if or when it disagrees with action a president takes on his own authority.



* Charles O. Jones. The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 38.

** Fred I. Greenstein. “The Person of the President, Leadership, and Greatness” in The Executive Branch. Joel D. Aberbach and Mark A. Peterson eds. Institutions of American Democracy Series. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 218–239.

*** Austin Romey and Thad Kousser. “Politics in the United States” in Comparative Politics Today 9th ed. Gabriel A. Almond et al. eds. (New York: Pearson-Longman), 2008 744.

1. Justice Robert Jackson concurring in the judgment and opinion of the Court. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. et al. v. Sawyer, 343. U.S. 579 (1952).

2. Louis Henkin, Constitutionalism, Democracy, and Foreign Affairs. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) 2, 17–18, 29–43, 45–46.

3. Edward S. Corwin. The President: Office and Powers. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975) 217.

4. Forrest McDonald. The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. (Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 1994) 391–393.


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