Basically I'm talking about the Reagan Era, the moment when Ronald Reagan became President.
There are moments in American history where the flow of history - much like a mighty river - shifts direction and the whole landscape changes. Usually wars - the American Revolution, Mexican-American, Civil War, World War II (but not necessarily the first one), Vietnam, the War on Terror - and sometimes economic disasters - the Great Depression, the Great Recession - but rarely an election of a political leader. Oh, Lincoln's election was pivotal, but that was part of the Civil War, sort of co-sponsoring the national shift from slavery to emancipation and states' rights to federalism. No, I'm talking about election of the likes of Andrew Jackson, a forceful personality who basically willed an entire nation's political and economic structure to his whims. There's a reason the 1830s-1840s is called the Age of Jackson (or Jacksonian Democracy).
Another such election was Reagan's. Which is slightly ironic in that Reagan's personality was not forceful like Jackson's, nor was he Active like Lincoln. In his Presidential Character book, James David Barber designated Reagan as a Passive-Positive, and for good reasons. Pass-Pos Presidents don't tend to leave a major impact on history, and yet pretty much the Eighties and even the Nineties could be considered the Reagan Era. We're still living (2013) in the aftermath of that era, so much that the Republican Party still pursues the policies of that era out of some fevered nostalgic hope to reclaim the past.
What Reagan brought to his tenure as President was an affable charm. It was that part of him that made him a relatively successful movie actor of the Thirties and Forties. This made him as a political figure more an entertainer than enlightener, but for him it worked. To quote Barber:
By the time Reagan reached the stage of the White House, he had more experience pleasing audiences than any American politician since William Jennings Bryan... And not since Harding had a happy-talk President's character and style fit together so nicely with the public's yearning for positive thinking in politics. The President had a terrific sense of humor, which he exercised regularly in what started out to be formal prep sessions by his staff... (p.256)
Reagan's nickname became The Great Communicator. No other President could pull off a bon mot, a one-liner, a poetic reading, a shaggy dog tale, and a comeback like he could.
With this persona in play, Reagan could be on the one hand ruthlessly micromanaged by his own staff - like an actor with an entourage handling all the chores, with a chief of staff doubling as publicity agent and gatekeeper to the media - and on the other perform flawlessly at staged photo-ops and televised national addresses. With control of the persona, there was control of the message.
It is through that manipulation of Reagan's image that an ambitious political agenda could be unleashed. Reagan's rise to power - from actor to governor of California to President - came through his association to social and economic conservatism, as part of the Goldwater movement of limited federalism. He challenged Ford for the 1976 primaries coming from the Far Right vs. Ford's pragmatic moderate platform, and was the bannerman for the conservatives once more in 1980. Reagan's victory, along with Republicans winning control of the Senate, was viewed as a shift in the national mood away from the FDR-to-LBJ liberalism.
Yet appearances were modestly deceiving. For all of the conservatives' hopes of pushing massive legislative changes, very little went in the Far Right's favor. The massive tax cut Reagan achieved in 1981 proved disastrous and Reagan quickly switched gears on that, raising taxes by 1983 to help pay off the increased deficits those cuts created. During his second term, Reagan pushed for and got an Income Tax reform bill in an attempt to straighten out and simplify a bloated tax code. Social welfare programs saw some cuts but for the most part remained intact, due to a Democratic House unwilling to bend on those programs. As a Passive-Positive, Reagan was amenable to compromise and working with Democratic leadership (Tip O'Neill especially) to get deals done.
The biggest difference between rhetoric and reality for the Reagan administration was the Cold War. Reagan came into office in 1980 as a kind of "cowboy", presenting himself as a Cold War Warrior standing up against the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union: yes, this is an actor relying on movies like Star Wars to help explain his world-view. It was this persona that pursued a massive arms build-up that forced the Soviets to spend beyond their own means. Yet it was another movie The Day After, about a nuclear holocaust, that woke Reagan up to the fact that a nuclear war was unwinnable, and he seriously began pursuing an arms limitation treaty with the Soviets after having spent the 1980 campaign decrying such negotiations during the Carter years. As a result, Reagan is the President who achieved getting a massive arms reduction treaty passed. Both the massive defense spending and the nuclear arms reductions - a one-two punch - began the late Eighties dominoes of events leading to the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Reagan received a lot of criticism from the Far Right for failing to pursue their objectives - an end of the New Deal policies, pursuing an honest-to-God war against Communism - and yet today he's still the patron saint of the Far Right, of the Republican Party as a whole. Because of two things: First, Reagan's administration is the only administration of the last eighty years the Far Right can accept (can't accept Bush the Elder or Ford or Eisenhower as they were too "moderate", can't accept Bush the Lesser considering all the disasters he presided over, and can't accept Nixon's because yeah Watergate); and Second, Reagan did achieve making hard conservative values acceptable to the mainstream consensus. Such as deregulation of businesses, downsizing of government, limiting abortion access, giving politically-active religious groups more political prestige, and other social conservative issues.
It's that particular agenda that defines the Reagan era. It's one of the core elements of the modern Republican agenda - to deregulate everything, to privatize everything, to shrink the federal government down to where Grover Norquist can drown it in his bathtub, to insert conservative religious values everywhere - that we live with and fight against to this day.
And as a Third point: Reagan's Affability, his popularity, remains untouched even to this day. Although like other Passive-Positives he filled his administration with untrustworthy underlings - Reagan presided over a scandal-filled administration that produced a Savings And Loan fiscal crisis when that sector was deregulated; and the Iran-Contra Affair that saw illegal arms deals to Iranians to free Middle East hostages, with the funds illegally going to support Nicaragua Contra rebels - Reagan himself remained untouched by most of the scandals. And despite the fiscal damage of the S&L crisis, the American economy remained churning and most Americans didn't seem to care.
Reagan's legacy remains: the idea of shrinking the federal government's role in the lives of Americans (and in the deregulation of billion-plus corporate industries) remains potent even as the Reagan era itself has technically ended. Not many Passive-Positives can claim such a legacy.
Next Up: Bush the Elder. There's not really anything fancy I can say about that.