The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history--the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website through September. This is the 10th in the series.
Dangerous cowboy. B-movie actor. Intellectual lightweight. Heartless right-winger. The epithets thrown at Ronald Reagan over the years were sometimes insulting, but he never seemed to mind. Instead of getting bitter or frustrated, he pursued the presidency with a special brand of good cheer and optimism that impressed the American people, if not the liberal intelligentsia.
Reagan fell just short of the Republican nomination in 1976, when President Gerald Ford narrowly beat him. But Ford went on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the general election that November, opening the way for Reagan to try again four years later.
By the time the 1980 campaign had begun, the country was increasingly dissatisfied with liberal, Democratic big government. As the months rolled by, the nation was wracked by high inflation and unemployment, gasoline shortages, and a hostage crisis in Iran in which more than 50 Americans were held captive by radical Muslims. Carter seemed weak and powerless, and voters felt down on their luck and deeply worried about the future.
Reagan proved to be the antidote. He urged Americans to believe in themselves again and declared that the United States was a "shining city on a hill" whose best days were still ahead. Many people thought that he was too extreme and simplistic, but opposition to the status quo ran so deep that the electorate decided to give the former movie star a chance in the White House. He defeated Carter in a landslide, winning 44 million votes, or 50.7 percent, and 489 electoral votes to Carter's 35.5 million votes, or 41 percent, and only 44 electoral votes. It marked a historic departure from the path that Franklin Roosevelt set toward ever-bigger government and shattered FDR's political coalition that had dominated American politics for most of the previous half-century.
The irony was that Reagan had been a Democrat and a fan of Roosevelt in his younger days. But as he studied politics and government, Reagan grew more conservative and eventually became a Republican.
Despite his political shift, he never forgot his middle-class roots. On Election Day, as his huge victory was becoming clear, a journalist asked Reagan what Americans saw in him. "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I'm one of them?" he replied. "I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them."
Many Americans were familiar with the actor from his frequent appearances in the movies and on television. He also honed his speaking skills as a spokesman for General Electric. Most important, Reagan gave conservatism a pleasant face and an appealing voice. This was central to his success.
His critics never gave him enough credit for his pragmatic skills as a two-term Republican governor of California, but he was more conciliatory than his adversaries supposed. He also was constantly underestimated by his critics, who never understood that his mellifluous voice, his reassuring manner, and the skills he learned as an actor would make him an unparalleled success as a communicator on TV, the dominant medium of the age.
At 68, he was the oldest person ever elected president for a first term, but in the end Americans didn't seem to mind because he was in such good health and looked much younger. In any case, his political approach seemed fresh and new. From the start, President Reagan set a clear direction for the country—roll back communism where possible, strengthen national defense, cut taxes, and stop or slow the growth of government. Even though many disagreed with the specifics of his policies, they accepted the direction he was setting and liked his brand of sunny, decisive leadership. He rose to near-heroic status, at least briefly, when he showed grace and strength of character after a would-be assassin nearly killed him in early 1981.
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