Ronald Reagan's Election & Presidency

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In 1980, former movie star and governor of California, Ronald Reagan won the presidency of the United States. His two terms represented a conservative shift in American politics.

1980 Presidential Election

In 1980, a former peanut farmer from Georgia went up against a former movie star from California in one of the world's biggest popularity contests. Doesn't sound like a fair fight, does it? It was the 1980 presidential election in the United States. The incumbent was Democrat President Jimmy Carter; his challenger was the former governor of California, Republican Ronald Reagan.

At the time, America faced a deep recession at home and a number of issues overseas, especially the Iran hostage crisis. Reagan persistently asked the American people, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' The answer was a resounding, 'No!' as Reagan was elected in a landslide, claiming 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. Reagan's election in 1980 with a very diverse base of support represented a conservative shift in American politics often referred to as the New Right.

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  • 0:01 1980 Presidential Election
  • 1:00 Reagan's Domestic Policy
  • 3:00 Reagan's Foreign Policy
  • 5:35 Iran-Contra Affair
  • 6:50 Lesson Summary
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Reagan's Domestic Policy

On the home front, Reagan promoted a return to traditional and religious values. Yet while supporting conservative ideals, he championed equal rights. He filed more federal civil rights cases than any previous administration and nominated the first female Supreme Court justice: Sandra Day O'Connor. Reagan was also the first to implement a plan to fight HIV and AIDS.

But his most pressing domestic policy issue was the economy, and his aggressive policies earned a nickname: Reaganomics. President Reagan summed up his philosophy during his first inaugural address when he said, 'Only by reducing the growth of government can we increase the growth of the economy.'

The theory of 'supply-side economics' suggests that a laissez-faire, or 'hands off,' government will encourage businesses to grow, invest more, create jobs for more tax-payers, and stimulate the economy. Ideally, the benefits of stronger businesses 'trickle down' to the workers. In support of this goal, Reagan increased tariffs, weakened unions, and pursued moderate deregulation. Perhaps most importantly, though, corporate income tax rates fell from 48% to 34%. Reagan also supported deep personal income tax cuts to encourage spending.

Despite his stated desire to see the federal government shrink, basic low-income assistance programs actually grew by 40% during his time in office and the military budget increased by 35%. The combined effect of Reaganomics was a tripled national debt. But beginning in 1982, the U.S. economy did begin its longest peacetime expansion ever, lasting 92 months.

Reagan's Foreign Policy

When it came to foreign policy, Reagan proposed a complete reversal of U.S.-Soviet relations. Following the Vietnam War, earlier presidents had willingly decreased tensions with the U.S.S.R. in a period of détente. But during that time, the Soviets had been expanding their sphere of influence. President Reagan wanted to increase Cold War competition against the so-called 'evil empire' and overturn communist governments.

In pursuit of this goal, Reagan approved a 35% increase in the defense budget. The U.S. increased troop numbers, modernized its weapons, enlarged the Navy, developed the intelligence program, and researched a strategic defense system to protect the United States from long-range Soviet missiles (dubbed 'Star Wars'). The Soviets, as planned, just couldn't keep up.

President Reagan wanted to use this newly-improved fighting force to end the Cold War once and for all. During his time in office, the United States helped anti-communist factions prevail in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America, most notably in Poland and Grenada. Reagan also intervened in the Middle East against regimes that had aligned with the Soviets, but success was elusive in such places as Lebanon and Libya.

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