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Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, held office from 1981 to 1989. Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. In 1937 he started a thirty-year career in film and television, and his time in Hollywood engendered his interest in politics. Upon leaving military service at the end of World War II (1939–1945), Reagan was an active member of the Democratic Party and had been a supporter of U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) and Harry Truman (1884–1972). Newly out of uniform, he engaged in union activity with the Screen Actors Guild and was its president for six years. Reagan’s experiences of the postwar red scare in the movie industry during the heyday of McCarthyism worked to solidify his staunch antiCommunist orientation. In 1952, owing to the new trajectory of his career and accompanying events, Reagan publicly renounced his Democratic Party affiliation and became a conservative Republican. His extensive acting experience, his service as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and his tenure as public spokesman for General Electric all prepared Reagan well for his entrance into California politics as state governor, and then beyond onto the national stage. Reagan’s political style is noted for his ability as a highly effective public speaker and his successful use of the presidential pulpit to advance his policy agenda, skills that earned him the moniker of “the great communicator.”
At the age of fifty-five, Reagan defeated the Democratic incumbent and was sworn in as California governor in 1967. He was reelected in 1970. His tenure as governor was marked by his sensitivity to the need to compromise his conservatively driven policies so as to allow enactment of legislation, as well as his management style of delegation and decentralization. Reagan’s aides exercised great authority and served as important formulators of policy, a management orientation that later marked his presidency and would be criticized subsequently as excessive abdication by Reagan of his presidential responsibilities. In the late 1960s, he took a firm and aggressive stance against student protesters at colleges, most notably at the University of California at Berkeley in 1969, by calling in the national guard and state police to deal with demonstrators.
Reagan secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and chose George H. W. Bush as his vicepresidential running mate. Reagan’s campaign stressed the economy, governmental growth, the budget deficit, declining U.S. prestige abroad, and the threat of the Soviet Union. Winning the presidency with 51 percent of the popular vote and 489 electoral college votes, Reagan took office with a new Republican majority in the Senate but with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. In 1984 Reagan won reelection with a landslide victory over Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, obtaining a record 525 electoral votes and 59 percent of the popular vote.
The first year of Reagan’s presidency is regarded as his most significant domestically. After recovering quickly from an assassination attempt in early 1981, Reagan advanced his supply-side economic policies through Congress. Showing political skill, he was able to get congressional enactment of sweeping tax reductions that were designed to induce economic growth. Congress passed most of the president’s proposals, including a cut in income-tax rates, a substantial increase in defense spending, and a drastic shrinking of nondefense, social-welfare expenditures. The purpose of these policies was to drive economic growth, and the resulting increase in governmental revenue via taxes was expected to offset the deficit and produce a balanced federal budget. The actual results were not as envisioned: Tax cuts and defense spending pushed the United States into becoming the world’s biggest debtor nation, and the federal budget deficit and national debt exploded. Reagan did, however, preside over the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history.
With a Republican-controlled Senate, Reagan effectively and efficiently used his judicial appointment power to advance his conservative social agenda at all levels of the federal judiciary by nominating only “the ideologically faithful.” By the time of his departure from the White House in 1989, Reagan had appointed over 60 percent of all federal judges and four U.S. Supreme Court justices, a highly significant legacy.
In foreign affairs, Reagan’s stern anti-Communist posture in his first term evolved into one of relative conciliation and rapprochement in his second term. His building of a line of communications with the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev through several summit meetings was pivotal in the reduction of tension between the two superpowers. This development ostensibly ushered in a new era of U.S.-Soviet relations. In addition, Reagan successfully enhanced American power in the international arena through a military buildup and the use of force in selected regional conflicts.
Reagan will be particularly remembered for bringing forth a new tide of conservatism to American politics. Domestically, Reagan changed the face of campaigning and governing with effective imagery, symbols, and video. He emphasized personal warmth and charisma, and forged success through economic growth, tax cuts, and tax reform. His legacy has been tempered by his administration’s long-term budget deficits and national debt concerns, and by the Iran-Contra scandal, in which presidential aides violated federal law in an effort to advance foreign policy endeavors that Congress had prohibited. Many of the tenets of Reagan’s 1980 campaign, including reducing the size and scope of government and balancing the federal budget, were not achieved.
Reagan left office in 1989. He was diagnosed in 1994 with Alzheimer’s disease, a condition typically associated with the elderly in which the mental capacity and intellectual functions decline due to deterioration of brain cells. Some analysts assert that early signs of this illness (such as memory troubles) could be observed while Reagan was still in office, but this is a point of contention and speculation. Ronald Reagan passed away at his home in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 2004. He remains a revered figure in the Republican Party and among adherents of conservative ideology.
- Berman, Larry, ed. 1990. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Greenstein, Fred. 2000. The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
- Jones, Charles. 1988. The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.
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