Reagan won the electoral vote 489 to 44.
Tumultuous First Term
When Reagan took office at the age of 69, he was better positioned than any Republican since Eisenhower to lay a firm hand on government. He froze hiring and new regulations. He swept even low-level Democrats out of their jobs and replaced them with Republicans. He won a 25% cut in personal income taxes and big tax breaks for businesses. He called for deep cuts in social programs, and he increased Pentagon spending by more than 9% per year between fiscal 1981 and 1984.
To presidents with programs, their first 100 days in office are important. Reagan did not have that long. On his 70th day, he was shot by John W. Hinckley Jr., a 25-year-old drifter who had hidden in a crowd of reporters outside the Washington Hilton, where Reagan had just spoken to labor leaders. A .22-caliber bullet entered his chest under his left shoulder. It careened off a rib and lodged in his left lung — within an inch of his heart. The bullet was removed during a two-hour operation, but not before he had lost nearly half his blood and edged close to death.
Reagan had been in far graver danger than he let on. He had walked into the hospital and did not collapse until he was out of sight. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he told Nancy, borrowing a line from boxer Jack Dempsey.
Hinckley, who had a history of psychiatric problems, was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster, whom he idolized. He had fired six shots, wounding four people. Press secretary James Brady was hit in the head and has been in a wheelchair since. Hinckley was committed to a mental institution.
Twelve days after the shooting, Reagan was back at the White House. His strength and gallant demeanor touched the public. Characteristically, however, he did not change his long-standing opposition to gun control. Brady, on the other hand, became a national leader in the fight to curb handguns.
Despite the interruption, Reagan lost little momentum. In the middle of his first summer as president, more than 11,000 federal air traffic controllers, members of one of the few unions to support him, walked off their jobs — and he fired them. It was a blow to organized labor, already in decline. But it showed that Reagan meant what he said, especially about guarding the economy against inflation. Before the end of his first summer as president, Congress had enacted his historic tax cut and his budget legislation largely intact.
To justify increasing defense spending while slashing taxes, Reagan had embraced supply-side economics — a theory that enjoyed little standing among many economists. Supply-siders held that higher spending and lower taxes would not increase the deficit. Instead, the theory held, tax cuts would unleash such a wave of economic growth that government income would actually rise.
It did not happen. As defense spending rose and the tax cuts kicked in, the predicted surge in economic growth did not materialize. The deficit soared toward record levels. Eventually, the national debt nearly tripled. Before Reagan's first year was up, the nation's economy plunged into the worst downturn in years. By March of 1982, Reagan, who had acknowledged "a slight and, I hope, a short recession," was reduced to denying that the nation was in a depression. Unemployment reached a 41-year record of 10.8% that November, and the global effects of the slowdown did severe damage to Third World debtor nations and the world's banking system.
Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, was among the disillusioned. He granted a series of devastating interviews to William Greider, who published them in the Atlantic Monthly, quoting Stockman as saying, "None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers."
"Stay the course!" Reagan urged the nation, insisting that supply side simply needed more time. But even Republicans feared that without additional revenue, the deficit would reach uncontrollable proportions. Republican senators forced him to accept a three-year, $100-billion tax increase.
Reagan sought to pass it off as closing loopholes.
The economic turmoil cost the Republicans 25 seats in the House of Representatives. But Democrats were hesitant to press their own solutions for the recession, and when Reagan's tax increase began boosting economic indicators in the fall of 1983, the president could claim full credit.
All the while, superpower relations degenerated to an unnerving low. Arms control negotiations stalled. Some Americans, including a number of religious leaders, urged a freeze on nuclear weapons. To blunt the movement, Reagan assailed the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." He called communism "another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written." He announced a plan to develop a space-based defense system, called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to destroy Soviet missiles before they could reach the United States.
American critics said SDI would never work. They named the system Star Wars, after the George Lucas space fantasy film. But Reagan would not give it up, and it became a persistent stumbling block to an arms control agreement.
In September of 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down an unarmed South Korean airliner that had strayed into Soviet air space over a Russian peninsula. The attack killed 269 people, including a U.S. congressman. Although an isolated incident, it deepened fear of a superpower conflict.
In the Middle East, the administration tried hard to bring peace. Reagan sent Marines into Lebanon as part of a multinational force to end warfare between Christians and Muslims. But the administration was divided. Reagan's advisors showed signs of the infighting that would come to cost him dearly during his second term. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger opposed the mission in Lebanon. But Reagan, encouraged by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, stepped up U.S. involvement.