On November 4, 1980, the United States chose for its leader, Ronald Reagan, who rode
into the White House promising smaller government, lower taxes, and less federal
intrusion in people’s lives. He was the oldest man ever to serve as president
of the United
Yet his smile and rugged good looks projected the youthfulness of his days in Hollywood. When he spoke, there was the mellifluous voice
and the familiar quick bob of the head. Then he would whip off a perfect
15-second sound bite for the network news or spin some tale with a moral.
It was the defining genius of Ronald Reagan to
find parables of hope and optimism to sustain his vision of a reborn America. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had spoken of
limits and the need for sacrifice. But Reagan utterly rejected that idea. After
two decades of troubles—assassinations, urban riots, the agony of Vietnam, the disgrace of Watergate, energy crises, and
double-digit inflation—the nation was ready for Reagan’s exhortation to
“dream heroic dreams.”
The Reagan Presidency Defined the Eights
His feel-good conservatism embodied the 1980s—the
restoration of pride and prosperity, but with little concern for pressing
social and economic problems. Reagan’s appealing surface simplicity concealed a
multitude of contradictions. He championed a return to family values, though he
was the first divorced president in U.S. history and was estranged from several of his
children. He cultivated fundamentalist Christians of the new religious right,
calling for “a spiritual revival, a return to a belief in moral absolutes,”
but seldom attended church. He preached old-fashioned habits of work and productivity
while maintaining a relaxed, hands-off management style and getting more sleep than
any president since Calvin Coolidge.
Not the least of Reagan’s
appeal was the straightforward simplicity of his political agenda. It was
highly conservative and, in domestic matters, ran directly counter to nearly
half a century of liberal policies. He declared, “We must balance the
budget, reduce tax rates, and restore our defenses.” He also advocated
“getting the government off people’s backs” by reducing federal
regulations on the environment and business.
Reagan had hated high income taxes ever since his
big-pay Hollywood days, when the top rate was 91 percent. As a
presidential candidate, he seized upon a tax-cutting scheme called supply-side
economics. According to this plan, tax reductions would stimulate the economy
by providing incentives for investment, thereby generating so much growth—and
hence new taxable income—that the government would actually gain revenue.
Critics labeled the idea “voodoo
economics,” a phrase coined, ironically, by Republican George Bush before
he joined the Reagan ticket as vice presidential candidate. But in seven years
Reagan and the Democratic Congress slashed the highest tax rate on even the
richest Americans from 70 percent to 28 percent.
At the same time Reagan, denouncing the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” pushed for the
largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. Annual defense spending ballooned from
less than $200 billion under Presidents Ford and Carter to nearly $300 billion
in 1985. “America is back and standing tall,” he proudly said
of the newly strengthened armed forces.