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Presidency of Ronald Reagan

Updated: 2017-08-30T07:24Z

The presidency of Ronald Reagan began on January 20, 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 1989. Reagan, a Republican, took office as the 40th United States president following a landslide win over Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, George H. W. Bush, who won the 1988 presidential election with Reagan's support.

Domestically, Reagan introduced several tax cuts and sought to cut non-military spending. The economic policies enacted in 1981, known as "Reaganomics", were inspired by supply-side economics. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 simplified the tax code, reducing rates while removing several tax breaks. Reagan also appointed more federal judges than any other president, including four Supreme Court Justices. Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which enacted sweeping changes U.S. immigration law, and the administration escalated the "War on Drugs".

Reagan's foreign policy stance was resolutely anti-communist; its plan of action, known as the Reagan Doctrine, sought to roll back the global influence of the Soviet Union in an attempt to end the Cold War. Under this doctrine, the administration initiated a massive buildup of the military, promoted new technologies such as missile defense systems, and, in 1983, undertook an invasion of Grenada, the first major overseas action by U.S. troops since the end of the Vietnam War. It also controversially granted aid to paramilitary forces seeking to overthrow leftist governments, particularly in war-torn Central America and Afghanistan. During Reagan's second term, he sought closer relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the two leaders signed the INF Treaty, a major arms control agreement. The Reagan administration engaged in covert arms sales to Iran in order to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua that were fighting to overthrow their socialist government. The resulting Iran–Contra affair resulted in the conviction or resignation of several administration officials.

Leaving office in 1989, Reagan held an approval rating of sixty-eight percent, matching those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Bill Clinton, as the highest ratings for departing presidents in the modern era.[1] Historians and political scientists generally rank Reagan as an above-average president. Due to Reagan's impact on public discourse and advocacy of American conservatism, some historians have described the period during and after his presidency as the Reagan Era.

1980 election

1980 electoral vote results

Reagan, who had served as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, narrowly lost the 1976 Republican presidential primaries to incumbent President Gerald Ford. With the defeat of Ford by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, Reagan immediately became the front-runner for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.[2] A darling of the conservative movement, Reagan faced more moderate Republicans such as George H. W. Bush, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries. After Bush won the Iowa caucuses, he became Reagan's primary challenger, but Reagan won the New Hampshire primary and most of the following primaries, gaining an insurmountable delegate lead by the end of March 1980. Ford was Reagan's first choice for his running mate, but Reagan backed away from the idea out of the fear of a "copresidency" in which Ford would exercise an unusual degree of power. Reagan instead chose Bush, and the Reagan-Bush ticket was nominated at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Carter won the Democratic nomination, defeating Ted Kennedy's primary challenge. Polls taken after the party conventions showed a tied race between Reagan and Carter. An independent candidate, former Republican Congressman John B. Anderson, also appealed to numerous moderates.[3]

The 1980 general campaign between Reagan and Carter was conducted amid a multitude of domestic concerns and the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Reagan's campaign stressed some of his fundamental principles: lower taxes to stimulate the economy,[4] less government interference in people's lives,[5] states' rights,[6] and a strong national defense.[7] Reagan won 50.7% of the popular vote and 489 of the 538 electoral votes. Carter won 41% of the popular vote and 49 electoral votes, while Anderson won 6.6% of the popular vote. In the concurrent congressional elections, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since the 1950s, while Democrats retained control of the House.

Legislation and programs

Major legislation signed

Other major legislation

Major treaties



The Reagan Cabinet
PresidentRonald Reagan1981–1989
Vice PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush1981–1989
Secretary of StateAlexander Haig1981–1982
George P. Shultz1982–1989
Secretary of TreasuryDonald Regan1981–1985
James Baker1985–1988
Nicholas F. Brady1988–1989
Secretary of DefenseCaspar Weinberger1981–1987
Frank C. Carlucci1987–1989
Attorney GeneralWilliam F. Smith1981–1985
Edwin A. Meese III1985–1988
Richard Thornburgh1988–1989
Secretary of the InteriorJames G. Watt1981–1983
William P. Clark Jr.1983–1985
Donald P. Hodel1985–1989
Secretary of AgricultureJohn Rusling Block1981–1986
Richard E. Lyng1986–1989
Secretary of CommerceHoward M. Baldrige Jr.1981–1987
C. William Verity Jr.1987–1989
Secretary of LaborRaymond J. Donovan1981–1985
William E. Brock1985–1987
Ann Dore McLaughlin1987–1989
Secretary of Health and
Human Services
Richard S. Schweiker1981–1983
Margaret Heckler1983–1985
Otis R. Bowen1985–1989
Secretary of EducationTerrel Bell1981–1984
William J. Bennett1985–1988
Lauro Cavazos1988–1989
Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development
Samuel R. Pierce, Jr.1981–1989
Secretary of TransportationDrew Lewis1981–1983
Elizabeth Hanford Dole1983–1987
James H. Burnley IV1987–1989
Secretary of EnergyJames B. Edwards1981–1982
Donald Paul Hodel1982–1985
John S. Herrington1985–1989
Chief of StaffJames Baker1981–1985
Donald Regan1985–1987
Howard Baker1987–1988
Kenneth Duberstein1988–1989
Administrator of the
Environmental Protection Agency
Anne M. Burford1981–1983
William D. Ruckelshaus1983–1985
Lee M. Thomas1985–1989
Director of the Office of
Management and Budget
David A. Stockman1981–1985
James C. Miller III1985–1988
Joseph R. Wright Jr.1988–1989
United States Trade RepresentativeWilliam E. Brock III1981–1985
Clayton K. Yeutter1985–1989
The Cabinet of President Reagan in 1981
The Cabinet of President Reagan in 1985

Judicial appointments

Reagan appointed William Rehnquist to the office of Chief Justice in 1986; he served until his death in 2005

Reagan made four successful (and two unsuccessful) appointments to the Supreme Court during his eight years in office:

  • Sandra Day O'Connor – Associate Justice (to replace Potter Stewart),
    nominated August 19, 1981 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate September 21, 1981.[8] The first woman on the Supreme Court, O'Connor retired from the Court in 2006, and was generally considered to be a centrist conservative[9]
  • William Rehnquist – Chief Justice (to replace Warren Burger),
    nominated June 20, 1986 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate September 17, 1986.[8] Rehnquist, a member of the conservative wing of the Court,[9] was the second sitting associate justice to be elevated to chief justice (after Edward Douglass White in 1910); such nominations are subject to a separate confirmation process.
  • Antonin Scalia – Associate Justice (to fill the vacancy left by William Rehnquist's elevation to chief justice),
    nominated June 24, 1986 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate September 17, 1986.[8] He was a member of the Court's conservative wing.[9]
    • Robert Bork – Associate Justice (to replace Lewis F. Powell Jr.),
      nominated July 7, 1987, but rejected by the U.S. Senate on October 23, 1987, by a vote of 42 in favor and 58 against confirmation.[8]
    • Douglas H. Ginsburg – Associate Justice (to replace Lewis F. Powell Jr.),
      nomination announced October 29, 1987, but withdrawn November 7, 1987, before it was formally submitted to the U.S. Senate.
  • Anthony Kennedy – Associate Justice (to replace Lewis F. Powell Jr.),
    nominated November 30, 1987 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate February 3, 1988.[8] Currently the senior member of the Court, he is generally considered to be a centrist conservative.[9]

Reagan also appointed 83 judges to the United States courts of appeals, and 290 judges to the United States district courts. Reagan sought to appoint conservatives to the bench, and many of his appointees were connected with the conservative Federalist Society.[10]

Domestic affairs

Reagan was an advocate of free markets and laissez-faire economics and believed that the U.S. economy was hampered by excessive regulations and social programs. He put aside his campaign promise to cut the federal budget deficit, instead focusing on four priorities: reducing taxes, reducing spending, implementing deregulation, and using monetary policy to fight inflation.[11] In his first inaugural speech, Reagan stated:[12]
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

"Reaganomics" and taxation

Outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation from the Oval Office in a televised address, July 1981

Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side economics, advocating a laissez-faire philosophy and free-market fiscal policy,[13] seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts.[14][15] Citing the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, Reagan promoted the proposed tax cuts as potentially stimulating the economy enough to expand the tax base, offsetting the revenue loss due to reduced rates of taxation, a theory that entered political discussion as the Laffer curve. Reaganomics was the subject of debate with supporters pointing to improvements in certain key economic indicators as evidence of success, and critics pointing to large increases in federal budget deficits and the national debt.[16]

During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981,[17] which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70% to 50% and the lowest bracket from 14% to 11%. However, Congress passed and Reagan signed into law tax increases of some nature in every year from 1981 to 1987 to continue funding such government programs as Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), Social Security, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA).[18][19] The Tax Reform Act of 1986, a bipartisan effort championed by Reagan, simplified the tax code by reducing the number of tax brackets to four and slashing a number of tax breaks. The top rate was dropped to 28%, but capital gains taxes were increased on those with the highest incomes from 20% to 28%. The increase of the lowest tax bracket from 11% to 15% was more than offset by expansion of the personal exemption, standard deduction, and earned income tax credit. The net result was the removal of six million poor Americans from the income tax roll and a reduction of income tax liability at all income levels.[20][21]

The net effect of all Reagan-era tax bills was a 1% decrease in government revenues when compared to Treasury Department revenue estimates from the Administration's first post-enactment January budgets.[22] However, federal income tax receipts increased from 1980 to 1989, rising from $308.7 billion to $549 billion[23] or an average annual rate of 8.2% (2.5% attributed to higher Social Security receipts), and federal outlays grew at an annual rate of 7.1%.[24][25]

Addressing Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery, April 28, 1981

Government spending and debt

Further following his opposition to government intervention, Reagan cut the budgets of non-military[26] programs[27] including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs[26] and the EPA.[28] While he protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare,[29] his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls.[30]

As Reagan was unwilling to match his tax cuts with cuts to defense spending or Social Security, rising deficits became an issue, even after Reagan signed into law several tax increases, including TEFRA and DEFRA.[31] From 1981 to 1989, the national debt rose from $998 billion to $2.857 trillion.[32] In an effort to lower the national debt, Congress passed the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget Act, which called for automatic spending cuts if Congress was otherwise unable to cut the deficit. However, Congress found ways around the automatic cuts and deficits continued to rise, ultimately leading to the passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990.[33]


Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. The act made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants, required employers to attest to their employees' immigration status, and granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982, and had lived in the country continuously. Critics argue that the employer sanctions were without teeth and failed to stem illegal immigration.[34] Upon signing the act at a ceremony held beside the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty, Reagan said, "The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."[35] Reagan also said, "The employer sanctions program is the keystone and major element. It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here."[35]

War on Drugs

First Lady Nancy Reagan at a Just Say No rally at the White House

Not long after being sworn into office, Reagan declared more militant policies in the "War on Drugs".[36][37] He promised a "planned, concerted campaign" against all drugs,[38] eventually leading to decreases in adolescent drug use in America.[39][40] As a part of the administration's effort, Reagan's First Lady, Nancy, made the War on Drugs her main cause as First Lady, by founding the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign.[41]

President Reagan signed a large drug enforcement bill into law in 1986; it granted $1.7 billion to fight drugs, and ensured a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses.[41] The bill was criticized for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, however, because of the differences in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine.[41] Critics also charged that the administration's policies did little to actually reduce the availability of drugs or crime on the street, while resulting in a great financial and human cost for American society.[42] Supporters argued that the numbers for adolescent drug users declined during Reagan's years in office.[40]

Foreign affairs

Countries Reagan visited during his presidency

In foreign affairs, Reagan publicly and aggressively rejected détente, choosing instead direct confrontation with the Soviet Union through a policy of "peace through strength", including increased military spending, more confrontational foreign policies against the USSR and, in what came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, support for anti-communist rebel movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Nicaragua and elsewhere.[43] Reagan later negotiated with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and together they succeeded in bringing about a substantial reduction in armaments levels worldwide.[44]

Escalation of the Cold War

As the first U.S. president invited to speak before the British Parliament (June 8, 1982), Reagan predicted Marxism would end up on the "ash heap of history"[45]

Reagan escalated the Cold War, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente which began in 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[46] Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces and implemented new policies towards the Soviet Union: reviving the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration, and producing the MX missile.[47] In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw NATO's deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany.[48]

Together with the United Kingdom's prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms.[49] In a famous address on June 8, 1982, to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, Reagan said, "the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash heap of history."[50][51] On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, "Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written."[52] In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union "an evil empire."[53]

After Soviet fighters downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Moneron Island on September 1, 1983, carrying 269 people, including Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, Reagan labeled the act a "massacre" and declared that the Soviets had turned "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere."[54] The Reagan administration responded to the incident by suspending all Soviet passenger air service to the United States, and dropped several agreements being negotiated with the Soviets, wounding them financially.[54] As a result of the shootdown, and the cause of KAL 007's going astray thought to be inadequacies related to its navigational system, Reagan announced on September 16, 1983, that the Global Positioning System would be made available for civilian use, free of charge, once completed in order to avert similar navigational errors in future.[55][56]

Meeting with leaders of the Afghan Mujahideen in the Oval Office, 1983

In March 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense project[57] that would have used ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.[58] Reagan believed that this defense shield could make nuclear war impossible.[57][59] There was much disbelief surrounding the program's scientific feasibility, leading opponents to dub SDI "Star Wars" and argue that its technological objective was unattainable.[57] The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have; leader Yuri Andropov said it would put "the entire world in jeopardy."[60] For those reasons, David Gergen, former aide to President Reagan, believes that in retrospect, SDI hastened the end of the Cold War.[61]

End of the Cold War

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF Treaty at the White House, 1987

Until the early 1980s, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to essentially frighten the Soviets, but the gap had been narrowed.[62] Although the Soviet Union did not accelerate military spending after President Reagan's military buildup,[63] their large military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy.[64] At the same time, Saudi Arabia increased oil production,[65] which resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level; oil was the main source of Soviet export revenues.[64] These factors contributed to a stagnant Soviet economy during Gorbachev's tenure.[64]

Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted to diplomacy, with a view to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. Reagan's personal mission was to achieve "a world free of nuclear weapons," which he regarded as "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization."[66][67][68] He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev.[68] Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow.[69] Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end of Communism.[70]

Before Gorbachev's visit to Washington, D.C., for the third summit in 1987, the Soviet leader announced his intention to pursue significant arms agreements.[71] The timing of the announcement led Western diplomats to contend that Gorbachev was offering major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.[71] He and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) at the White House, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.[72] The two leaders laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I; Reagan insisted that the name of the treaty be changed from Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.[67]

When Reagan visited Moscow for the fourth summit in 1988, he was viewed as a celebrity by the Soviets. A journalist asked the president if he still considered the Soviet Union the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."[73] At Gorbachev's request, Reagan gave a speech on free markets at the Moscow State University.[74] In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan expressed his optimism about the new direction that they charted and his warm feelings for Gorbachev.[75] In November 1989, ten months after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was opened, the Cold War was unofficially declared over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989, and two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.[76]

Reagan Doctrine

Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration also provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements in an effort to "rollback" Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.[77] Reagan deployed the CIA's Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were instrumental in training, equipping and leading Mujahideen forces against the Soviet Army.[78][79] President Reagan's Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,[80] though some of the United States funded armaments introduced then would later pose a threat to U.S. troops in the 2001 War in Afghanistan.[81] However, in a break from the Carter policy of arming Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, Reagan also agreed with the communist government in China to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan.[82]


Reagan meets with Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica in the Oval Office about ongoing events in Grenada

The invasion of the Caribbean island Grenada in 1983, ordered by President Reagan, was the first major foreign event of the administration, as well as the first major operation conducted by the military since the Vietnam War. President Reagan justified the invasion by claiming that the cooperation of the island with communist Cuba posed a threat to the United States, and stated the invasion was a response to the illegal overthrow and execution of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, himself a communist, by another faction of communists within his government. After the start of planning for the invasion, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) appealed to the United States, Barbados, and Jamaica, among other nations, for assistance. The US invasion was poorly done, for it took over 10,000 U.S. forces eight days of fighting, suffering nineteen fatalities and 116 injuries, fighting against several hundred lightly armed policemen and Cuban construction workers. Grenada's Governor-General, Paul Scoon, announced the resumption of the constitution and appointed a new government, and U.S. forces withdrew that December.

While the invasion enjoyed public support in the United States and Grenada[83][84] it was criticized by the United Kingdom, Canada and the United Nations General Assembly as "a flagrant violation of international law".[85] The date of the invasion is now a national holiday in Grenada, called Thanksgiving Day.

South Africa

During Ronald Reagan's presidency South Africa continued to use a non-democratic system of government based on racial discrimination, known as apartheid, in which the minority of white South Africans exerted nearly complete legal control over the lives of the non-white majority of the citizens. In the early 1980s the issue had moved to the center of international attention as a result of events in the townships and outcry at the death of Stephen Biko. Reagan administration policy called for "constructive engagement" with the apartheid government of South Africa. In opposition to the condemnations issued by the US Congress and public demands for diplomatic or economic sanctions, Reagan made relatively minor criticisms of the regime, which was otherwise internationally isolated, and the US granted recognition to the government. South Africa's military was then engaged in an occupation of Namibia and proxy wars in several neighboring countries, in alliance with Savimbi's UNITA. Reagan administration officials saw the apartheid government as a key anti-communist ally.[86]

By late 1985, facing hostile votes from Congress on the issue, Reagan made an "abrupt reversal" on the issue and proposed sanctions on the South African government, including an arms embargo.[87] However, these sanctions were seen as weak by anti-Apartheid activists who were calling for Disinvestment from South Africa.[88] In 1986, Reagan vetoed the tougher sanctions of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, but this was overridden by a bipartisan effort in Congress. By 1990, under Reagan's successor George H. W. Bush, the new South African government of F. W. de Klerk was introducing widespread reforms, though the Reagan administration argued that this was not a result of the tougher sanctions.[89]

Libya bombing

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (here with Reagan outside 10 Downing Street in June 1982, as the Falklands War drew to a close) granted the U.S. use of British airbases to launch the Libya attack

Relations between Libya and the United States under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981; by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be, along with USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, part of a group known as the "unholy trinity" and was also labeled as "our international public enemy number one" by a CIA official.[90] These tensions were later revived in early April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin discothèque, resulting in the injury of 63 American military personnel and death of one serviceman. Stating that there was "irrefutable proof" that Libya had directed the "terrorist bombing," Reagan authorized the use of force against the country. In the late evening of April 15, 1986, the United States launched a series of airstrikes on ground targets in Libya.[91][92]

Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, allowed the U.S. Air Force to use Britain's air bases to launch the attack, on the justification that the UK was supporting America's right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.[92] The attack was designed to halt Gaddafi's "ability to export terrorism," offering him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior."[91] The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office after the attacks had commenced, stating, "When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I'm in this office."[92] The attack was condemned by many countries. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which "condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on April 15, 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law."[93]

International travel

Reagan made 25 international trips to 26 different countries on four continents—Europe, Asia, North America, and South America—during his Presidency.[94] He made seven trips to continental Europe, three to Asia and one to South America. He is perhaps best remembered for his speeches at the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, for his impassioned speech at the Berlin Wall, his summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, and riding horses with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Park.

Assassination attempt

On March 30, 1981, only 69 days into the new administration, Reagan, his press secretary James Brady, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy were struck by gunfire from would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Although "close to death" at the hospital,[95] Reagan recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11, becoming the first serving U.S. President to survive being wounded in an assassination attempt.[96] The attempt had great influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%.[97]


Iran–Contra affair

Fearing that Communists would take over the Central American nation of Nicaragua if it remained under the leadership of the left-wing Sandinistas, the Reagan administration authorized CIA Director William J. Casey to arm the right-wing Contras early in his tenure. Congress, which favored negotiations between the Contras and Sandinista, passed the 1982 Boland Amendment, prohibiting the CIA and Defense Department from using their budgets to aid to the Contras. Still intent on supporting the Contras, the Reagan administration raised funds for the Contras from private donors and foreign governments.[98]

During his second-term, Reagan sought to find a way procure the release of seven American hostages held by Hezbollah, a Lebanese paramilitary group supported by Iran. The Reagan administration decided to sell American arms to Iran, then engaged in the Iran–Iraq War, in hopes that Iran would pressure Hezbollah to release the hostages. The Reagan administration sold over 2000 missiles to Iran without informing Congress, while Hezollah released four hostages but captured an additional six Americans. On the initiative of Oliver North, an aide on the National Security Council, the Reagan administration redirected the proceeds from the missile sales to the Contras. The transactions became public knowledge in October 1986, resulting in the dismissals of North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter. Reagan also appointed the Tower Commission and Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh to investigate the transactions.[99]

The Iran–Contra scandal as it became known, did serious damage to the Reagan presidency. The investigations were effectively halted when President George H. W. Bush pardoned Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before his trial began.[100]

Savings and loan crisis

In the savings and loan crisis, 747 financial institutions failed and needed to be rescued with $160 billion in taxpayer dollars.[101] Revisions to the tax code during Reagan's term included the elimination of the "passive loss" provisions that subsidized rental housing. Because this was removed retroactively, it bankrupted many real estate developments which used this tax break as a premise, which in turn bankrupted 747 Savings and Loans, many of whom were operating more or less as banks, thus requiring the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to cover their debts and losses with tax payer money. This with some other "deregulation" policies, ultimately led to the largest political and financial scandal in U.S. history to that date, the savings and loan crisis. The ultimate cost of the crisis is estimated to have totaled around $150 billion, about $125 billion of which was directly subsidized by the U.S. government, which further increased the large budget deficits of the early 1990s.

As an indication of this scandal's size, Martin Mayer wrote at the time, "The theft from the taxpayer by the community that fattened on the growth of the savings and loan (S&L) industry in the 1980s is the worst public scandal in American history. Teapot Dome in the Harding administration and the Credit Mobilier in the times of Ulysses S. Grant have been taken as the ultimate horror stories of capitalist democracy gone to seed. Measuring by money, [or] by the misallocation of national resources... the S&L outrage makes Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier seem minor episodes."[102]

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it "the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance and larceny of all time".[103]

Age and health concerns

Reagan in February 1985

As Reagan was, at the time, the oldest person to be inaugurated as president (age 69), and also the oldest person to hold the office (age 77), his health became a concern at times during his presidency. Former White House correspondent Lesley Stahl later wrote that she and other reporters noticed what might have been early symptoms of Reagan's later Alzheimer's disease.[104] She said that on her last day on the beat, Reagan spoke to her for a few moments and did not seem to know who she was, before then returning to his normal self.[104] However, Reagan's primary physician, Dr. John Hutton, said the president "absolutely" did not "show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's".[105] His doctors noted that he began exhibiting Alzheimer's symptoms only after he left the White House.[106]

On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery to remove polyps from his colon, causing the first-ever invocation of the Acting President clause of the 25th Amendment. On January 5, 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for prostate cancer which caused further worries about his health, but which significantly raised the public awareness of this "silent killer".


1984 election

1984 electoral vote results

Reagan's opponent in the 1984 presidential election was former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had been Carter's running mate in 1980. With questions about Reagan's age, and a weak performance in the first presidential debate, his ability to perform the duties of president for another term was questioned. His apparent confused and forgetful behavior was evident to his supporters; they had previously known him clever and witty. Rumors began to circulate that he had Alzheimer's disease.[107][108] Reagan rebounded in the second debate, and confronted questions about his age, quipping, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," which generated applause and laughter, even from Mondale himself.[109]

That November, Reagan was re-elected, winning 49 of 50 states.[110] The president's overwhelming victory saw Mondale carry only his home state of Minnesota with a razor-thin margin and the District of Columbia. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes, the most of any candidate in United States history,[111] and received 59% of the popular vote to Mondale's 41%.[110]

1988 election and transition

1988 electoral vote results

In the 1988 presidential election, Vice President George H. W. Bush defeated Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, taking 53.4% of the popular vote and 426 of the 538 electoral votes. The Bush administration would include several veterans of the Reagan administration, including James Baker and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. On January 11, 1989, Reagan addressed the nation for the last time on television from the Oval Office, nine days before handing over the presidency to Bush. On the morning of January 20, 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan met with the Bushes for coffee at the White House before escorting them to the Capitol Building, where Bush took the oath of office.

Evaluation and legacy

Since Reagan left office in 1989, substantial debate has occurred among scholars, historians, and the general public surrounding his legacy.[112] Supporters have pointed to a more efficient and prosperous economy as a result of Reagan's economic policies,[113] foreign policy triumphs including a peaceful end to the Cold War,[114] and a restoration of American pride and morale.[115] Proponents also argue Reagan restored faith in the American Dream with his unabated and passionate love for the United States,[116] after a decline in American confidence and self-respect under Jimmy Carter's perceived weak leadership, particularly during the Iran hostage crisis, as well as his gloomy, dreary outlook for the future of the United States during the 1980 election.[117] Critics contend that Reagan's economic policies resulted in rising budget deficits,[118] a wider gap in wealth, and an increase in homelessness[119] and that the Iran–Contra affair lowered American credibility.[120]

Despite the continuing debate surrounding his legacy, many conservative and liberal scholars agree that Reagan has been the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaving his imprint on American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics through his effective communication, dedicated patriotism and pragmatic compromising.[121] Since he left office, historians have reached a consensus,[122] as summarized by British historian M. J. Heale, who finds that scholars now concur that Reagan rehabilitated conservatism, turned the nation to the right, practiced a considerably pragmatic conservatism that balanced ideology and the constraints of politics, revived faith in the presidency and in American exceptionalism, and contributed to victory in the Cold War.[123]

See also


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Further reading

External links

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Reagan Presidency
Succeeded by
G. H. W. Bush
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