US History and Politics Term Paper

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Conservative American Presidents

The purpose of this paper is to introduce and discuss the return to conservatism in the American presidency after the 1980s. It will compare the similarities to earlier periods in the 19th and 20th century, and discuss what relationship there is between this return to conservatism, and the continued struggle for U.S. military dominance and economic globalization.


The country emerged from World War II as the dominant world force and with a booming national economy.

It was able to construct a series of political, economic, and military alliances that tied most of the former great powers together against its only rival, the Soviet Union. This unique postwar situation could not last forever, and in the 1960s and 1970s the "American Century" began to unravel (Florig 153).

It was this unraveling that Americans were worried about, and so they turned to conservatives like Ronald Regan and George Bush to "put the country back on track."

When Ronald Regan took office in 1980, America was ready for a change. Jimmy Carter's presidency was not popular, and many political experts believe Americans voted against Jimmy Carter rather than for Ronald Regan. In fact, "President Reagan began his administration with a more modest approval rating than any of his predecessors in the previous forty-five years" (Anderson 565).

Indeed, in 1980 the Republican Party recognized Americans were frustrated with current policies, and rethought their platform when they nominated Regan in Detroit.

At the convention in Detroit, Reagan-type conservative sentiment predominated, and the Republican delegates endorsed supply-side economic policies, a much harder line against the Soviet Union, and uncompromising positions on several social issues even though the policies in all three areas represented significant departures from the more traditional conservatism of the Nixon and Ford administrations (Anderson 564).

Unemployment reached 10% during the first Regan term in office, and there was a recession that many felt would ultimately lead to a nationwide depression. However, Regan and his advisors managed to turn the tide of inflation, including granting a tax cut in 1981. "The 1981 tax cut was also popular, eventually adding to personal disposable income which is second only to controlling inflation as the economic variable most strongly related to presidential popularity" (Anderson 578).

Many Americans also felt Regan used too much force in his foreign policy, and could bring the country to war very easily. The March 1986 raid on Libya and Moammar Khadafy's headquarters in retaliation for terrorist activities was popular with most Americans, but illustrates his use of force and might in American foreign policy. Contributing to the global peace process, Regan met with Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1987, and together they signed the INF (intermediate nuclear force) arms control treaty, limiting and controlling the use of nuclear arms in both countries, a major step in demonstrating America's global political dominance.

U.S. economic power was also under challenge in the 1970s. The European and Japanese economies had recovered from the destruction of the war and were reemerging as major competitors with the United States for world markets and even in the American domestic market. (Florig 154)

Like Regan, earlier presidents faced similar challenges when they took office. Warren Harding took over the country after the horrors of World War I, and helped build America's dominance in the world's politics and economy.

The Reagan era can be compared with other decades when Republican presidents came to power after turbulent times under Democratic leadership. In 1952, at the height of the cold war and in the midst of the Korean War, Dwight Eisenhower ended twenty years of Democratic control of the White House and presided over the conservative decade of the 1950s. Similarly, in 1920 Republican Warren Harding swept to power on the slogan "return to normalcy," playing on popular revulsion with the carnage of World War I and the Democrat Wilson's determination to keep the United States involved in European power politics (Florig 193).

However, Harding and Regan were far different presidents, even if their elections and terms of office were similar. Some early scholars called Harding perhaps the worst President America has ever had. Unlike Regan, who grew more popular in his second term, Harding only served one term, and he accomplished little during those four years. He was politically conservative, and a staunch supporter of the Republican Party. After a flirtation with progressivism, Americans wanted a more conservative president, and Harding fit the bill. He was elected to the Senate in 1914, and nominated for the presidency in 1920. While Reagan worked to gain world dominance and world peace, Harding was more of a separatist. He did not want the U.S. To retain membership in the League of Nations and he limited immigration. He did keep America in the World Court, however.

On May 14, Harding gave his famous "Back to Normal" speech: America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not revolution, but restoration; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in nationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality (Jennings 281).

Facing a similar recession to the Reagan era when he entered office, he cut taxes, and tried to improve the post-war economy. His advisors created the Federal Budget System while he was in office, and helped reduce the national deficit.

Politically, the party "bosses," and his campaign contributors led Harding. His nomination for president coined the term "smoke filled room," where the party bosses and Senators sat around in a hotel room and jockeyed their candidates for money and power. Harding came out on top, and never forgot his friends. He died before his term was up, but before he died, he knew his term was filled with scandal and personal gain by many of his supporters.

Both presidents also suffered from scandal during their terms. Reagan suffered through the Iran-Contra Scandal, and Harding died before the Teapot Dome scandal came out - it was forever linked to his administration. Harding once admitted to a friend that the job of the presidency was "beyond" him. He tended to make vague political promises that he often did not carry out. "Decidedly conservative on trade and economic issues, Harding favored pro-business government policies. He allowed Andrew Mellon to push through tax cuts for the rich, stopped anti-trust actions, and opposed organized labor" (Editors).

Unlike other modern presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, who possessed conventional minds and who thought simply, Harding never understood where he wanted to take the nation. Nor could he communicate his message effectively, because he had none to communicate. He spoke about a "return to normalcy," but he had no idea what this slogan meant. Lacking the moral compass of a Reagan, Harding had no guide to follow. He was lucky to have had a few good men in his cabinet who generally ran fiscal and foreign affairs well (Editors).

Conservatism in the 80s and early 90s in the United States resulted in economic ups and downs, America's global strength being weakened by other strong economies like Japan, and a continuation of military might and dominance. Just as in prior administrations, the presidencies of Bush and Reagan can be applauded and criticized equally. Many believe Reagan did not really accomplish all that much, despite the glowing reports of many conservative publications. They feel his foreign policy, especially with the Soviet Union, was led more by Gorbachev than himself, and his domestic financial policies helped out big business, and nearly "ruined the savings and loan industry" (Reagan). However, even critics say, "During his watch, the nation regained its prestige in the world, emerged triumphant in the long Cold War with the Soviet Union, and restored its confidence in the future…

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