Introduction and Early Life
Ronald Wilson Reagan would start and leave his presidency incredibly popular. He would become known as the "Great Communicator" with the American people, largely due to his years as an actor. He was the oldest man to ever be elected and he would have one of the most revolutionary presidencies in history. Reagan was born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois and lived through his early years in a family of modest means. When he was a teenager, he first got interested in politics. President Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and his economic policies of cutting taxes and reducing government spending inspired Reagan. Nevertheless, after graduating from Eureka College in 1932, he voted for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. He worked as a radio sports announcer before being offered a contract from Warner Brothers in 1940. In the 1950s, Reagan worked for the Sunday television show "General Electric Theater" and eventually entered politics. He married Nancy Davis while president of the Screen Actors Guild.
At first, Reagan was a Democrat who liked the ideas of John F. Kennedy, but as the Democrats moved left, Reagan moved right. He soon became a strong conservative voice for the Republican Party and won the election for governor of California in 1966. Reagan beat Democratic incumbent Pat Brown because he spoke better than most politicians. This was because of his years in radio and television which allowed him to convince voters. Brown and the national media made Reagan look like an anti-labor and anti-intellectual reactionary and expected an easy victory. In that election, 400,000 middle class Democrats voted for Reagan and became famously known as Reagan Democrats. These supporters would allow Reagan to have so much success in future elections. Brown would be the first of many people to underestimate Reagan.
The conservative governor ran for president several times, but lost in the Republican primaries. The first time he ran was in 1968, but the voters nominated Richard Nixon. After Nixon resigned, Reagan challenged the incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Many establishment Republicans expected an easy victory for the moderate Ford, but Reagan proved to be a strong challenge. The primary went all the way to the convention where Reagan finally gave up. While the Republicans adored Reagan far more than Ford, many still held a sense of loyalty to the incumbent. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was experienced in national campaigns and was ready to finally win the nomination.
The 1980 Presidential Election
Reagan was the obvious favorite and easily beat former CIA Director George H.W. Bush and Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson. The Democrats on the other hand were divided between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. While Carter won more primaries than Kennedy (a brother of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy), the senator did not drop out and the convention was one of the most of brutal in history. However, Carter was able to win his nomination and made a speech about Reagan's dangerous policies. Democrats weren't the only people criticizing Reagan's supply-side economic theory that had not been truly seen since the 1920s, so were some Republicans. Bush declared his policies "vodoo economics", but despite this Reagan picked Bush as his vice presidential candidate. Anderson was not out either as he decided to run as an independent third party candidate.
While Reagan brought in his own economic plan to the election, Carter did not. This hurt Carter's campaign as many Americans saw him failing in the economy. Foreign policy was dismal as well because of the hostage crisis in Iran. Democrats who did not support Carter backed Anderson. Reagan promised to strengthen the military against the Soviets. This helped him since typically 60 percent of Americans in polls saw the United States as losing its strength. Carter's television ads praised him as a peacemaker and Reagan as a warmonger, but the American people wanted a stronger president. Reagan's campaign ads focused on his record as governor where he cut the deficit and lowered taxes while attacking Carter for high inflation and the Iran hostage crisis.
The League of Women Voters was planning to hold debates during the 1980 election, just like they did in 1976, but Carter was reluctant. When John Anderson was considered for entering a debate Carter refused to show up. Reagan would not do the debate without Anderson. As a result, Reagan and Anderson went up against each other. The Illinois congressman who was widely seen as an intelligent statesman was unable to defeat the former actor. Reagan's skills from Hollwood helped him greately against Anderson. The independent candidate's poll numbers fell from a high of 20 percent to a low of 5 percent. Eventually, Carter accepted to debate Reagan but Anderson was not invited. The president and the governor faced off in the second debate and Reagan was the clear victor, boosting his poll numbers tremendously. Reagan won by a landslide with 50.8 percent of the votes, Carter had 41.0 percent, and Anderson had 6.6 percent.
"Man is not free unless government is limited." - Ronald Reagan
The drive for a more supply-side economic policy first rose in the 1970s in The Wall Street Journal business newspaper. Jude Wanniski, an editor for the paper, was a firm supporter of lower tax rates and less regulation. Wanniski was spreading the ideas of economist Arthur B. Laffer, who created the famous Laffer curve. Laffer had first discussed the concept of the Laffer curve to members of the Ford administration while drawing the idea on a cocktail napkin to show them. In the Laffer curve there were two scenarios, one was a tax rate at 0 percent and the other was at 100 percent. In both cases, the government would receive no revenue because no one would work for the loss of all their income. Laffer argued that at a certain point taxes would be too high and cause the government to lose money as people moved their capital to tax shelters. Laffer and other supply-side economists argued that the high tax rates at the time were not receiving the revenue they were expected too and were destroying productivity.
In the White House, Ronald Reagan ordered a portrait of Harry Truman in the Cabinet room be taken down and one of Calvin Coolidge be put up. Coolidge was his role model for economic policy. Reagan put Arthur Laffer on his Economic Policy Advisory Board. Reagan promised to cut taxes for the American people, deregulate the economy, and cut government spending. At first, his tax plan called the Economic Recovery Tax Act was stalled in Congress, but in an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, Reagan gained national praise and his tax bill was passed months later. The tax bill was a 25 percent cut on income taxes for most Americans. This was followed by a tax increase a year later, but nevertheless the tax cut was deep and effective allowing many Americans to recover from the terrible recession. Unemployment started at 7.6 percent and would peak at 10.8 percent, but would start to rapidly fall. Real GDP grew from 0.9 percent before the tax cut to 4.8 percent after. Inflation started falling and government revenue started rising. The Laffer curve proved to be successful.
While at first bitter political rivals, Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill became fast friends. When Reagan first took office, the powerful speaker called him, "Herbert Hoover with a smile," but personally they were always on cordial terms. The Democratic speaker may have forgotten that Hoover skyrocketed taxes during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Reagan and O'Neill liked to share Irish stories and one journalist said they were friends "after 6:00 pm." Despite being from different political parties, they enjoyed speaking with each other and this sometimes allowed bipartisanship.
When Reagan cut the capital gains tax, new businesses started forming in the electronics industry. The most notable of these new businesses were Apple and Microsoft. The tax cuts created during Reagan's era directly contributed to the creation of the computers, VCRs, cell phones, and other electric devices. Had he not come to office, the growth of these two companies may have been largely different. Reagan's policies also helped the telecommunications sector. Deregulation in that sector led to competitive services, cable television, and wireless communication. Businesses weren't just thriving, people were. Real median household income rose by $4,000 during his presidency, a strong change from the decline in income during Carter's presidency.
Overall, domestic spending was constrained during Reagan's presidency, only growing by 1 percent per year in comparison to 3.5 percent under Carter's presidency. One of Reagan's regrets was that he could not cut domestic spending faster. Congress was intent on keeping many social programs and Reagan with his Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman were unable to pass massive $100 billion spending cuts that they had originally planned for. Reagan was very disappointed with Congress, but decided to focus more on compromise with Tip O'Neill. The Democrats (and some Republicans) would not allow large domestic spending cuts mostly due to special interest groups that held a lot of power in several states. There was one area in government spending that did rapidly increase: the military.
A Stronger Foreign Policy
Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was a return to the "big stick" diplomacy used by President Theodore Roosevelt. He called the USSR the "Evil Empire" and started to get more forceful on the Soviets. When Reagan first became president in January 1981, the military was low on morale, money, and equipment. The US military's international reputation was gone from the effects of the Vietnam War. Carter did little during his term to restore faith in the military and had made budget cuts in important weapons programs. Reagan massively increased the military budget and started a new program: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars" program) to create a space defense system that would destroy incoming nuclear missiles. While this did make the military stronger, a negative effect from the heavy military spending was the national debt which skyrocketed during Reagan's presidency from $1 trillion to $2.6 trillion when he left office. The deficit went up to over 6 percent, but just like FDR in World War 2, Reagan knew that a massive amount of money was needed to be spent to win Cold War.
Reagan wanted to directly confront the Soviet Union, but that was difficult early in his presidency as the American people still feared a second Vietnam War. In October 1983, US marines stationed in Beirut, Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force were killed in a suicide bombing. Reagan pulled out, but still showed military power when he launched an invasion of Grenada in response to a coup that brought a communist government to power. Democrats and the liberal press argued that the invasion might result in a failure and was not worth it, but the American troops won the invasion. The victory was quick and easy. Faith was starting to be restored in the American military.
While all this happened, the liberal media continued to criticize Reagan for creating a disastrous doctrine. Reagan was made as a man who would cause a nuclear apocalypse, but his allies fired back that SDI was created to stop nuclear missiles not create a disaster that would destroy the world. Reagan didn't just want to limit nuclear missiles, he wanted the eliminated. He wanted to go further than Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford ever did. The same month the invasion of Grenada occured, people around the world protested his actions, but the president did not give up. The Soviet Union's attempts to gain the advantage over the United States were failing. Those who backed the Reagan Doctrine, like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl were reelected.
The Iran-Contra Affair and Conflicts in the Cabinet
With the economy booming and Reagan's approval ratings rising, the chances of a second term were clear. The Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, as their candidate and historically nominated Geraldine Ferraro as their vice presidential candidate (the first time a female was nominated as a vice presidential candidate in a major political party). Reagan won a greater landslide in the 1984 election than he did in the 1980 election. Reagan had 525 electoral votes to Modale's 13 (all from Minnesota and Washington D.C.) along with 58.8 percent in the popular vote to Mondale's 40.6 percent. Reagan continued his conservative economic policies and signed another massive tax cut in 1986 along with major reforms in the tax code, but that same year was soon dominated by a scandal.
In Nicaragua, a civil war was occurring between the right-wing free market Contra rebels and the Sandinista left-wing socialist government. The Sadinista government had taken control of Nicaragua in the late 1970s with the support of the Carter administration and promised financial assistance. Carter and his advisers were not prepared when the new government cancelled promised elections and established friendly relations with the Soviet Union. A large military was built to spread Marxism through Central America and the government seized several private lands. This was very dangerous for the United States. The Soviets already had other communist strongholds in Cuba and Grenada, but now they had one on the mainland between both Americas.
Reagan wanted to help the Contras, but his bill to send funding was rejected by Congress, who was worried of another Vietnam. However, several government officials including Colonel Oliver North decided to send supplies illegally through Iran to the Contras. One of the most recent enemies of the United States was now receiving American money to fund a revolution in Nicaragua. When this was discovered, the American people were outraged and Congress began an investigation. The investigation found no proof that the president was involved, but he took responsibility for what had happened. The public forgave him because he took responsibility and his approval ratings started rising again.
Problems were also looming in the White House. Budget director David Stockman was continuing to find Reagan as someone who truly did not have the stomach for his major budget cuts. Reagan had continued to realize how much Congress was against huge domestic spending cuts, but continued to limit its growth. Stockman was angered that his chief executive was not launching a political war with Congress, but Reagan needed Congress to cooperate for the most part with a recovering economy and his foreign policy. Stockman started to publicly criticize Reagan and worked with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to approve tax increases to raise revenue (even while the Laffer curve proved it was not true). First Lady Nancy Reagan urged her husband to fire Stockman, but the president hated to fire people. This was a huge weakness in his management style, but eventually Stockman left in 1986 to take a job on Wall Street.
A Peaceful Ending to the Cold War
With a strong allies in Prime Minister Thatcher and Chancellor who Kohl (who shared the president's free market values), Reagan continued his political attacks on the Soviet Union. However, relations between the Americans and the Soviets started to improve when President Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and the two became fast friends. Reagan and Gorbachev met at Reykjavik, Iceland in October 1986 to discuss reductions in nuclear weapons by as much as 50 percent. Gorbachev went even further and discussed reducing conventional weapons in the Warsaw Pact. Then, Reagan suggested that all nuclear weapons be eliminated between the two nations. Gorbachev responded, "Let's eliminate them." It seemed that the most important treaty in world history was about to take place. Then, Gorbachev and the Soviets looked at Reagan's SDI program. If any agreement was to made, the Soviets said that SDI must be eliminated as well. Reagan had promised it to the American people and refused. This led to no agreement being made at the summit. However, it did lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty fourteen months later, which did reduce nuclear weapons. Reagan also started to cut the military budget as a result of improve relations and Soviet decline.
The USSR was crumbling down and the Cold War was coming to an end. Militarily, Reagan's high military spending and the creation of SDI was too much for the Soviets to compete with (who were already spending a lot of money into their military). Reagan also sent aid to rebels in Afghanistan. The Soviets had entered the country to help the communist government against the rebels, but this cost a lot of men and money. Economically, Reaganomics had played their role in the Soviet Union's demise. Reagan's conservative actions in lowering taxes and cutting both domestic spending and government regulations was too much economic competition for the USSR's command-directed communist economic system. Politically, Reagan confronted the Soviets at every turn. On June 12, 1987, Reagan gave the most famous speech of his presidency when at the Brandenburg Gate near the infamous Berlin Wall he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" While all presidents since Harry Truman deserve some credit for ending the Cold War, Reagan no doubt deserves the most.
In the United States, the cuts in military and domestic spending along with the steady increase in revenue led to the decline of the deficit which was now at 3 percent, exactly where it started when Reagan first entered the office. Unemployment had went down to 5.5 percent, the Dow Jones Industrial average had grew by 130.60 percent (despite a stock market crash in 1987 that had little negative effects due to Reagan's policies), and the American people were in good spirits. Reagan's economic and foreign policy victories made him extremely popular, despite the Iran-Contra scandal and the issues with David Stockman. Reagan finally left office in January 1989, beloved by the American people.
Legacy and Later Life
Ronald Reagan was many presidents. He combined the charisma of Franklin Roosevelt, the domestic policies of Calvin Coolidge, and the foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt together into one. Since the death of John F. Kennedy, the American people had been looking for another president who could be similar. Lyndon Johnson had been a casualty of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon was a heroic failure, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both failed in bringing faith in the presidency. With Ronald Reagan, the American people found a man that could measure up. During Reagan's presidency, people had been concerned that Alzheimer's disease had made him forgetful during meetings. This is debatable, but Reagan wrote a letter to the public that he had Alzheimer's on November 5, 1994. His wife Nancy withdrew him from many public appearances. When he died on June 5, 2004, he could not remember that he was one of the most popular presidents of all time.