The Most Consequential Elections in History: Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980

Reagan gave conservatism a pleasant face and an appealing voice.

Reagan declared that the United States was a ''shining city on a hill.''

Reagan declared that the United States was a ''shining city on a hill.''

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Overall, says Frank Donatelli, Reagan's political director at the White House, "It was the first serious effort to rein in the welfare state. And President Reagan engaged the Soviet Union and communism successfully." On the political front, Donatelli adds, Reagan's ascent "coincided with the rise of the religious right"—the millions of Christian voters who held the balance of power in many states and who, under Reagan, became much more active in politics.

Says political scientist Alvin Felzenberg: "Of all who served as president of the United States, none came to office with a more clearly articulated vision of where he wanted to take the nation than Reagan. Like Jefferson and Jackson, Reagan came into office universally known as a spokesman for a significant political movement. If his two nineteenth-century predecessors promulgated their ideas through partisan newspapers and personal letters, Reagan's preferred medium was speeches. . . . Reagan offered nothing less than a complete reversal in the direction in which the nation had been headed prior to his inauguration as president. On the domestic front, he sought major reductions in marginal tax rates and fewer regulations on the economy. He argued that such measures would unleash the creative entrepreneurial impulses of the American people. Internationally, Reagan sought nothing less than having the United States prevail in the Cold War."

Under Reagan, the growth of government was slowed (though not stopped), taxes were reduced, the economy boomed, and the nation was at peace. In March 1983, Reagan made one of his most memorable declarations when he called the Soviet Union "an evil empire."

Yet, in a strange twist, during his second term, Reagan entered into a strategic partnership with a dynamic new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer and a strong leader in his own right. By the end of his eight-year presidency, Reagan said the U.S.S.R. that he once denounced had become his partner in seeking East-West accommodation.

Despite his popularity with voters, Reagan's critics never stopped their attacks. They argued that he was too conservative, wasted billions of dollars in a vast military buildup, allowed social problems to fester, and lacked an understanding of his own policies. They redoubled their criticism during the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal in his second term. But Reagan recovered his popularity, and, by the end of his administration, most Americans told pollsters they liked the job he was doing. Perhaps most important, Americans got their confidence back; and that was due in no small measure to the man nicknamed "the Great Communicator."

More from our Most Consequential Elections series:
George Washington and the Election of 1788
Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964