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From “The Age of Limits” to the Age of Reagan
During his brief tenure in office, Gerald Ford sought to heal the wounds of Watergate. His rapid
decision to pardon Richard Nixon, however, was unpopular and no doubt contributed to his
defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter turned out to be a more effective campaigner than chief
executive, though. His appeal of being a Washington outsider and his call to craft a foreign
policy that would emphasize human rights worked against him once in office. He insulated
himself from many of Washington’s experienced political leaders—relying more on a tight-knit
group of associates from Georgia—and he failed to convey authority and strength to the public.
He was not without successes, however. He helped engineer the Camp David accords on the
Middle East and steered the Panama Canal Treaty through a skeptical Senate. But he made no
significant strides toward solving a severe energy crisis, and he took only halting steps toward his
goal of making the federal government more efficient. Carter’s last year in office was particularly
difficult. Inflation and interest rates soared. His public approval rating was at an historic low. A
nationally televised address in which he criticized the public for a “crisis in confidence” was, if
nothing else, a disastrous political miscalculation. The humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis
may well have cost Carter a second term.
But the late 1970s also saw an upsurge in conservatism in many parts of the country.
Most of this rise was unrelated to the events in Iran. It stemmed from population shifts toward
the Sunbelt, with its traditions of conservatism in the South or antigovernment politics in parts of
the West. It could also be traced to the solid organizing efforts and activism of the Christian
right. All of these factors played a role in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. His brand of
optimistic conservatism, coupled with his bashing of the policies of liberalism, played well to a
nation that had grown cynical of government. Many Americans resented the power of
government at home while they wanted it to be strong abroad. Reagan promised them both.
Reagan followed supply-side theory of economics, with major tax and domestic spending cuts,
coupled with large increases in defense spending. Within a year the nation was mired in the worst
recession since the 1930s, but then growth and prosperity returned by 1983 and the economy
grew increasingly stronger. The stock market boomed while inflation and unemployment were
moderate. The wealth was not distributed equally and the national deficit soared, but many
Americans felt better about themselves and viewed the nation as being on the initiative. The
result was an easy Reagan reelection win in 1984.
Throughout the Reagan era, Americans continued to think of the world in Cold War
terms. These tensions lessened as the 1980s unfolded. Far more startling were the incredible
events of 1989–1991, which saw the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War,
and the birth of a suddenly uncertain future. Although the reasons for the collapse were assessed,
it was left to Reagan’s vice president and successor, President George Bush, to chart a new
course for the United States in the post–Cold War world. He governed from the assumption that
as the world’s lone superpower, the United States should maintain its preeminent status and
deploy its power in reaction to threats. The 1989 thrust into Panama and the 1991 Gulf War were
two examples of that desire to preserve and advance American dominance. The apparent military
success of both ventures should have assured Bush a second term, but a combination of a
domestic recession, Bush’s own inability to secure his conservative base, and a lackluster
campaign spelled his demise. The little-known Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton ran a populisttinged campaign that successfully focused on the economic problems. Following a three-way
race, Clinton assumed the presidency and its troubles.
A thorough study of Chapter 33 should enable the student to understand:
1. The efforts of President Gerald Ford to overcome the effects of Richard Nixon’s resignation
2. The rapid emergence of Jimmy Carter as a national political figure and the reasons for his
victory in 1976
3. President Carter’s foreign policy priorities and his overall impact on international relations
4. Carter’s role in bringing about the Camp David agreement of 1979 and the impact of this
agreement on the Middle East in general
5. The background to the Iranian hostage crisis and its effects on the Carter presidency
6. The key arguments raised in the presidential campaign of 1980
7. The meaning of supply-side economics and its impact on the American economy during the
Reagan administration
8. The nature of the Reagan Revolution in American foreign and domestic policies
9. The key changes in American demography between 1970 and 1990 and the political impact
of those changes
10. The increasingly conservative mood of the American electorate between the late 1970s and
the late 1980s
11. The factors that led to the rapid fall of communist governments across eastern Europe, until
the Soviet Union collapsed as well
12. The end of the Cold War and how it was coupled by the fading of the Reagan Revolution,
during the latter 1980s and the Presidency of George Bush
13. The 1990–1991 Cold War and how its successful outcome for the United States was not
enough to sustain the reelection hopes of President Bush as the economy faltered
14. The 1992 election of Democrat Bill Clinton, who defeated both an incumbent president and
the most significant third-party candidate in eighty years
1. That President Ford managed to restore a degree of confidence in the institution of the
presidency without making significant breakthroughs in solving major foreign and domestic
2. That President Carter’s leadership style and seemingly intractable economic problems,
including a major energy crisis, resulted in his being an unpopular, one-term president
3. That President Reagan’s optimistic personality and his brand of conservatism, which
included both a reduced role for government in the economy and a greater emphasis on
military spending, combined to spell political success for the president and his Republican
4. How and why the New Right came to offer a significant challenge to the liberal consensus
that had dominated American politics since the New Deal
5. That the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union forced the United States
into an uneasy reevaluation of its role in the world
6. That the final years of the Reagan administration and virtually all of the Bush presidency
were dominated by the transition from Cold War issues to a post–Cold War world
1. Did President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon accomplish its purpose of closing the book on
Watergate? What else did Ford try to do to restore the credibility of the presidency? How
successful was he? Why did he lose the election in 1976?
2. Why was Jimmy Carter such an attractive candidate to many voters in 1976? What did he
seem to offer to the nation? Why did many of his assets as a candidate become liabilities once
he was in office?
3. How effective was President Carter when it came to applying his human rights principles to
American foreign policy? Was Carter a moralist/idealist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson?
How did his general approach to foreign policy evolve during his presidency? How did his
approach differ from the ideas and actions of President Reagan? Why did President Carter
not win reelection in 1980?
4. How did the nation’s energy needs complicate the foreign and domestic policies of Presidents
Ford, Carter, and Reagan? Who was the most successful in solving these problems and why?
Who was the least successful and why?
5. How do you account for the upsurge in conservatism in the United States by the late 1970s?
Why was that conservatism sustained during the 1980s? What effect did the conservative
movement have on established civil rights movements?
6. What promises did candidate Ronald Reagan make to the American people in 1980? How
successful was he in accomplishing his goals once he was in the White House? How did he
differ from his Republican predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford?
7. Describe the remarkable demographic shifts that occurred in the United States after 1965.
Assess both the immediate and long-term impact of those shifts.
8. How would you characterize the mood of the American electorate during the 1980s? Did that
mood accurately reflect the state of American life during the 1980s? Why or why not?
9. Explain the fundamental changes that had taken place in the American economy by the mid1980s. Why and how did these changes come about? How did the American middle class try
to cope with these changes?
10. How did the United States respond to both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end
of the Cold War? Was it contradictory for American policy makers to reduce military spending
even as the United States took on greater responsibility for maintaining world order?
11. How did the 1990–1991 Gulf War reflect the new post–Cold War realities? Why did the
success of the war fail to sustain the Bush presidency into a second term? What was the
appeal of Bill Clinton to voters in 1992?
12. Did Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992 or did George Bush lose it? Explain your
1. Compare the presidential election results of 1976 and 1980.
2. Identify the bases for George Bush’s victory in 1988. Is there a pattern to the states he
carried? What states did he lose that Reagan had carried?
3. Identify the key states carried by Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot in 1992. Where
did Clinton make inroads over the Dukakis campaign of 1988?
1. What were the congressional and presidential political implications of the growth of the
2. What problems did the demographic shift to the Sunbelt leave for the Northeast in general
and many of its central cities in particular?
3. Compare the 1976 election results with those of 1948, 1960, and 1968. Why was Carter able
to retain the solid South when so many recent Democrats had lost at least part of it?
4. How did the rise of conservatism affect presidential politics in 1976 and 1980? Why did
President Carter lose most of the South only four years after his 1976 victory? What other
traditionally Democratic areas did Carter lose, and why did he lose them?
5. What explains the landslide for Ronald Reagan in 1984? Why was Walter Mondale able to
carry only Minnesota and the District of Columbia?
Anthony S. Campagna, Economic Policy in the Carter Administration (1995)
James M. Cannon, Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History (1994)
E. J. Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics (1991)
John Erman, The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994 (1995)
Frances Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War
John Lewis Gaddis, We Know Now: Rethinking Cold War History (1997)
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, Blue Smoke and Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter
Lost the Election of 1980 (1981)
Steven Gillon, The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter Mondale and the Liberal Legacy (1992)
Erwin Hargrove, Jimmy Carter as President (1989)
Godfrey Hodgson, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in
America (1996)
Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years (1991)
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001)
Herbert Parmet, George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee (1997)
Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (1992)
Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (1981)
Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics
Clyde Wilcox, God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in Twentieth Century America (1992)
Daniel Wirls, Buildup: The Politics of Defense in the Reagan Era (1992)
For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see
this book’s Online Learning Center at