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Ronald Reagan: Election and domestic policies

Read about Reagan's early political career, election, and policies at home. 


  • Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, won the 1980 presidential election in a landslide. He won reelection in 1984 by one of the largest margins in US history.
  • Reagan’s campaign brought together a “New Right” coalition of economic conservatives, members of the Christian Right, working-class whites, and supporters of a more aggressive Cold War foreign policy.
  • President Reagan initially engineered large tax cuts, but as deficits grew proposed select tax increases. Over the course of his presidency, inflation and unemployment fell, while the national debt nearly tripled.

The political career of Ronald Reagan

A two-term President (1981-1989), Ronald Reagan headed one of the most successful coalitions of political conservatives in American history. Born in 1911 in northern Illinois, a graduate of Eureka College, Reagan was a Hollywood actor—and six-term head of the Screen Actors Guild—before taking up a job as spokesperson for General Electric Corporation in the 1950s.1
Official portrait of President Reagan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Though he had been a liberal Democrat into his forties, Reagan became a free-market political conservative in the 1950s, and formally switched party affiliations to become a Republican in 1962. During his two terms as governor of California (1967-1975), Reagan was a vocal critic of the expansion of government.2
In his 1980 campaign for the US presidency, Reagan promised to cut taxes, increase defense spending, promote deregulation, and balance the federal budget. Reagan also promised to end the double-digit inflation that characterized Jimmy Carter's presidency, and restore both Americans' faith in their country and America’s status in the world. “Let’s make America great again,” the candidate and his campaign posters declared.3
Reagan also addressed key concerns of the Religious Right. He called for a “return to spiritual values” as a means of strengthening traditional families and communities, advocated a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and another Constitutional amendment to permit organized prayer in public schools.4
President Reagan earned the nickname “The Great Communicator” for his plain-spoken, self-effacing, and humorous manner of public speaking. In both his first and second terms he exuded an upbeat optimism about the nation’s domestic and international future, an attitude captured in both of his inaugural addresses as well as in his 1984 reelection campaign television commercial, “Morning in America.”5


President Reagan’s supply-side economic policies, often called Reaganomics, set out to grow the economy by cutting taxes and deregulating some industries. Supply-side economics depended on the idea that corporations and wealthy individuals would reinvest the money they saved by paying lower taxes to build businesses, create jobs, boost profits, and spur economic growth. In Reagan’s first year in office he engineered a three-stage 25 percent income tax reduction. In the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the top marginal rate (the tax paid by the highest income earners) was lowered to 28 percent.6
Deregulation, or the removal of government regulations on some industries, would, it was hoped, lower costs and boost profits for employers while lowering prices for consumers. During Reagan's first term, the trucking and telephone industries were deregulated, and clean air standards for cars were lowered.7
Reagan often said that "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," and memorably quipped: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." In practice, however, Reagan was more moderate than his language let on. He cut taxes when possible, but aggregate tax receipts during his presidency remained similar to those of his more liberal predecessors.8
Although Democrats blocked many of his efforts to limit government expenditures through cuts to social welfare programs, Reagan succeeded in making cuts to spending on food stamps, low-income housing, and school lunch programs. He also reduced the percentage of federal expenditures on education and promoted the transfer of some federal control and expenditures to state governments.9

What do you think?

Why do you think that Reagan switched party affiliations in the 1950s?
Does supply-side economics work? Why or why not?
What are some of the attributes of President Reagan’s public speaking abilities that led him to be called "The Great Communicator”?

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