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Chapter 13 The Reagan and Bush Years, 1980–1992
By the summer of 1980, most Americans were deeply concerned about the economy and world events. Stagflation had taken its toll on the economy and unemployment approached 8 percent. Interest rates remained so high that few businesses or consumers could take out loans. The energy crisis continued to remind Americans of their nation’s vulnerabilities. Even worse, America seemed helpless in the face of Iranian terrorists who still held fifty-two American hostages. Americans were also concerned that annual budget deficits continued even after the Vietnam War ended. As the 1980 elections arrived, only a third of Americans approved of the job President Jimmy Carter was doing. Only Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal, had lower approval ratings.
In response to all of these factors, many Americans supported a growing conservative movement that promised a new direction for the nation based on limiting the size and power of the federal government. Other conservatives lashed out at liberal programs they believed had failed and recipients of welfare, recent immigrants, and supporters of affirmative action. Former actor turned politician Ronald ReaganA leading Hollywood actor for several decades, Ronald Reagan entered politics after a rousing speech endorsing conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Two years later, Reagan became the governor of California. Reagan nearly defeated Ford in the Republican primary of 1976 and would win a landslide election in 1980 to become the fortieth president. spoke to the concerns of both groups of American conservatives—those who supported the ideas of conservative political and economic theorists and those who believed that America’s problems were the result of a parasitical infection on the body politic. Reagan also appealed to the nostalgia of older Americans who longed for the years when US military’s might was unchallenged and when US factories produced nearly half of the world’s manufactured goods.
Reagan confidently and warmly projected the simple message that he would ensure that American economic power and prestige was restored. Reagan’s campaign was upbeat, simple, direct, and for many of his supporters, uplifting. Reagan’s fetes also reminded many Americans of an earlier time they hoped to return to. Reagan rallies were as full of patriotic optimism as a Fourth of July parade, while Carter’s speeches often felt more like lectures about the problems the nation faced. The message resounded with older whites, especially among white males who were twice as likely to vote for Reagan as nonwhites. For many Americans, however, the way Reagan spoke with and about minorities and the Reagan campaign’s cavalier attitude toward their perspectives threatened to reverse the progress the country had made.