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History of Reagan’s Presidency

Ronald Wilson Reagan served as the 40th President of the United States from Jan. 20, 1981 to Jan. 19, 1989. He won the Nov. 4, 1980 presidential election, beating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter with 50.7% of the votes, and won his second term by a landslide of 58.8% of the votes. [2][49]

Click for an Encyclopaedia Britannica video showing Reagan’s first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981

Reagan’s proponents point to his accomplishments, including stimulating economic growth in the US, strengthening its national defense, revitalizing the Republican Party, and ending the global Cold War, as evidence of his good presidency.

His opponents contend that Reagan’s poor policies, such as bloating the national defense, drastically cutting social services, and making illegal arms-for-hostages deals, led the country into record deficits and global embarrassment.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. He graduated in 1932 from Eureka College with a BA in social sciences and economics and moved to Iowa to become a radio sports announcer. A screen test in 1937 won him a contract in Hollywood and, over two decades, he appeared in 53 films. In 1949 Ronald Reagan divorced his first wife, Jane Wyman, and married Nancy Davis in 1952. He was the only president to have been divorced (as of Oct. 11, 2010). After six years as president of the Screen Actors Guild, serving intermittently between 1947 and 1960, Reagan was elected Governor of California on Nov. 5, 1966 and reelected on Nov. 5, 1970. [2]

At the age of 69 in 1981 and 73 in 1985, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected President (as of Oct. 11, 2010). [1]

President Reagan waves to onlookers just before attempted assassination.
Source: “Reagan Assassination Attempt,” (accessed Sep. 9, 2010)

On Mar. 30, 1981, 69 days after Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the President outside the Washington Hilton hotel. Reagan was shot under the left arm, the bullet lodged in his lung, and missed his heart by less than an inch. [2]

When Ronald Reagan took office the US economy had 9% inflation with 20% interest rates. [50] To combat these effects Reagan established what came to be known as “Reaganomics,” economic policies that included increased defense spending, lower personal income taxes, reduced spending on social services, and decreased business regulation. [51]

The President and his cabinet emphasized supply-side economics, believing that slashing taxes will stimulate economic growth. They passed legislation such as the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which included the largest tax cuts in the postwar period, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. As a result, the top marginal tax rate on individual income was reduced from 70% to 28% and the overall tax code was restructured. [37] [52]

13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off the job in a nationwide strike on Aug. 3, 1981. Two days later, Reagan announced that they were in violation of legislation prohibiting strikes by government employees because of public safety and, if they did not report to work within 48 hours, their jobs would be terminated. Only 1,300 returned to their jobs. [42] It was an event that changed the landscape of US labor relations – major strikes plummeted from an average of 300 each year in the decades before to fewer than 30 in 2006. [20]

On Aug. 19, 1981, Ronald Reagan fulfilled his campaign pledge to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to replace Justice Potter Stewart. Congress confirmed O’Connor’s appointment on Sep. 21, 1981 by a vote of 99-0. [3]

In the fall of 1981, the US economy took a turn for the worse, experiencing its worst recession since the Depression. The Federal Reserve increased interest rates to combat the 14% inflation rate. By Nov. 1982, unemployment reached 10.8%, thousands of businesses failed, farmers lost their land, and many sick, elderly, and poor became homeless. [2] The official unemployment rate reached 11.5 million in Jan. 1983, and Reagan’s disapproval rating rose to 50%, from a low of 18% in early 1981. [53][54]

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aka “Star Wars.”
Source: “Rush to Failure,”, May-June 2000

On Mar. 8, 1983, Reagan gave what came to be known as his “Evil Empire Speech,” that warned against ignoring “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,” the USSR. [55] That same month, on Mar. 23, President Reagan announced the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed “Star Wars,” a space-based defense system intended to deter an attack on the US by intercepting Soviet nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). [56]

In Beirut, Lebanon on Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove his truck into a US Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines. This tragedy caused the US to reconsider Reagan’s placement of the Marines as peacekeepers of a cease-fire during the Lebanese civil war. US troops left Lebanon in Feb. 1984. [57] In that same month, on Oct. 25, 1,900 US Marines invaded the small island nation of Grenada. The invasion was partly over safety concerns for American medical students in the country and partly to weaken a recent Marxist coup; it emphasized Reagan’s drive to undermine any spread of communism. The move was both denounced by the United Nations and supported by many Americans. [6][58] The US accomplished its military objectives in Grenada: the students came home unharmed and the Marxist government was deposed. [2]

Map of the 1984 US presidential election results.
Source: “Ronald Reagan,” (accessed Sep. 17, 2010)

Reagan won a second term in 1984 by a landslide, receiving 58.8% of the popular vote. He also won a record 525 of a possible 538 electoral college votes, the highest in US history (as of Oct. 11, 2010). Reagan won every state but Minnesota, the home state of his opponent Walter Mondale. [49]

Between Nov. 19, 1985 and Dec. 8, 1987, President Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, at four summits to discuss their countries’ bilateral arms race. The meetings culminated in their Dec. 8, 1987 signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a bilateral treaty which required the elimination of all intermediate range ground-launched missiles. [2][59][66]

On Nov. 25, 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese publicly confirmed that $10-$30 million of profits from the sale of US arms to Iran had been diverted to the anti-communist guerrilla Nicaraguan Contras. National Security Adviser John Poindexter resigned and National Security Aide Col. Oliver North was fired, both for their involvement in what came to be known as the “Iran-Contra” affair. President Reagan claimed that he did not learn of the Iran-Contra diversion until Meese told him about it on Nov. 24, 1986. [63] The Feb. 26, 1987 Tower Commission’s Report, a study by an independent commission appointed by Reagan, found no evidence linking Reagan to the fund diversion. However, the report did determine that Reagan’s disengagement from the management of the White House led to the actions of his administration. [2]

Click for an Encyclopaedia Britannica video showing Reagan speaking at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 2987.

On June 12, 1987, Reagan delivered a famous address in West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate which had separated communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin since 1961. In his speech, the president questioned whether reforms in the Soviet Union were profound or “token gestures,” and challenged Gorbachev to prove his efforts at openness: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” [15]

In his two terms in office, Reagan continually tried to balance the budget by cutting federal spending. He cut the budgets of many federal departments, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (by 40%), the Department of Transportation (by 18%), the Department of Education (by 19%), the Department of Commerce (by 32%), and the Department of Agriculture (by 24%). Reagan never cut the budgets for the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice, or State. [4]

President Reagan also presided over the biggest peacetime defense buildup in history. Reagan expanded defense spending from $178 billion in 1981 to $283 billion by 1988, an increase of 58.9%. [5]

During Reagan’s presidency, total national debt increased from $994 billion in 1981 to $2.9 trillion in 1988. [36] The deficit grew from $74 billion in 1980 to $155 billion in 1988, and unemployment was at a 14-year low, 5.5%, by mid-1988. [60] [2] On Jan. 20, 1989, Ronald Reagan left the White House with the highest approval rating, 68%, of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. [61]

In 1993, Reagan experienced recurring episodes of confusion and forgetfulness and was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s Disease. He disclosed his condition in a Nov. 5, 1994 letter to the American people hoping to “promote greater awareness of this condition.” [62] Ronald Reagan died in California on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. [2]