1980s America: The Ronald Reagan Presidency

Teacher Guide By Richard Cleggett

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Reagan Presidency Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Ronald Reagan Presidency Include:

Ronald Reagan was an iconic and controversial president during the twilight of the Cold War. Over the course of a decade, “The Great Communicator” was pivotal in the fall of the Soviet Union, and a powerful force to realign American politics towards conservative ideas. The impacts of his presidency remain in the news today; Reagan continues to be praised as a conservative hero, but is criticized for the long term impact of his social and economic policies.

Ronald Reagan Presidency Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The Emergence of the New Right: Election of 1980

In this activity, students will use a T-Chart storyboard to illustrate the candidates of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1980 Presidential Election. By highlighting each candidate, their positions, ideas, and ideologies, as well as the principles of their parties, students will be able to analyze and explain how and why each candidate fared the way they did. The ideas and ideologies, along with the principles of each candidate, will give insight to future actions taken by the eventual winner, Ronald Reagan.

1980 Presidential Election Candidates

Ronald Reagan Jimmy Carter
Political Ideology Ronald Reagan ran as the Republican candidate in the 1980 Presidential election. He led an increasing conservative population dubbed the "New Right". Reagan and his supporters believed in smaller government influence, cutting federal programs and spending, and incorporating more Christian values into society. They wanted to reverse much of the emphasis on federal social support from previous decades. Jimmy Carter entered the 1980 Presidential election as the Democratic incumbent. His popularity, however, waned under the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis and rising energy costs. Carter's democratic ideologies coincided with his belief in liberalism, social welfare, and his economic policy of "stagflation". In essence, due to Carter's poor decisions and lack of initiative, liberalism was seriously waning in popularity.
Domestic Policy Ronald Reagan's domestic policy platform lay in protecting the United States at all costs. He pledged to build up military defenses as well as change the economy. Reagan wanted to return to more "traditional" economics, letting capitalism run itself. Furthermore, he wanted to reduce income taxes and reduce federal spending on welfare programs, leaving those decisions to the states. Carter's domestic policy lay in deregulating control over industry and transportation. Furthermore, Carter made strides in attempting to solve the energy crisis, which proved to be a complex problem. It would come to hurt him, as energy prices skyrocketed and no solutions seemed to be in sight. In addition, Carter struggled to work with Congress, further hurting his domestic initiatives.
Foreign Policy In regards to foreign policy, Reagan pledged to continue to protect the United States from Soviet influence, as the Cold War was still in full swing at the time of the 1980 election. Reagan pledged to protect the ideas and ideals of democracy and basic human freedoms, while also reducing Soviet influence. In addition, Reagan pledged to protect American interests in the Middle East and the Americas. Carter had an even tougher time with his foreign policy initiatives. The Iranian hostage crisis dominated airwaves, and Carter seemed weak in his stance to bring the hostages home. He did, however, achieve success in his Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, as well as his initiatives on human rights.

Extended Activity

Have students create a grid storyboard to detail what principles and ideas define major terms like liberalism and conservatism. This will allow students to gain a better understanding of what exactly constitute the core ideas of each ideology and political position, and how these principles factored into the 1980 election.

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The Economy: Reaganomics

Using a spider map storyboard, have students define the major principles and ideas of Reagan’s economic changes during his first years as president. Students should include the four major pillars of Reaganomics: reduce government spending, cut taxes, reduce government influence and regulation, and cut back inflation through a reduced money supply. Students may also include extra slides on side-supply economics, and examples of how he instituted these economic policies. Students will be able to explain and analyze what defined Reagan’s economic policies, and therefore, “Reaganomics”.


Side-Supply Economics

One principle of Reaganomics was to institute the economic theory of side-supply economics. This theory predicted that by cutting taxes, businesses would gain more capital, hire more workers, and produce more goods. Essentially, it was trickle-down economics, where money would "trickle" down from capital gains to the everyday worker.

Reduce Federal Taxes

Cuts in the federal income tax also stood as an important pillar in Reagan's economic changes. Income tax brackets were simplified. Tax reductions for the highest tax brackets dropped from 70% in Reagan's first year, to 28% by 1986. The wealthy benefited from this reduction the most; however, the theory was more Americans would have more money to spend.

Restrict the Money Supply / Inflation

To reduce inflation, Reagan restricted the money supply while the Federal Reserve raised interest prices to counteract inflation. As a result, recession ensued between 1981-82. Inflation cooled, however, and confidence began to be restored among investors and consumers alike. Yet, defense spending and low tax revenues increased the federal deficit.

Reduce Government Regulations

Reagan initiated heavy deregulation of federal spending. Reagan took aim at programs that had grown in the early 1900s and during FDR's New Deal programs. He believed Americans could prosper through individual effort, not government aid. He let states control federal aid. Reagan referred to this as the "New Federalism".

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map on another president’s economic policies, particularly one with a strong federal influence e.g., FDR, Obama, Nixon. Have them compare and contrast what constituted their policies, their success, and failures.

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Reagan and the Cold War: A Closer Look at Foreign Policy

In this activity, students will research and create a cause and effect T-Chart storyboard to outline Reagan’s foreign policy, specifically his Cold War policy. Students should include major events and policies including his relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Iran-Contra Affair, military build-up, and his speech at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall. However, teachers may pre-select any issues, events, or policies that students should include in defining Reagan’s foreign policy and role in the ending of the Cold War.

Reagan's Actions: Cause and Effect

Cause / Action Effect
Relations with the Soviet Union To counteract Soviet Influence in the waning years of the Cold War, Reagan ordered a large build-up of domestic defenses. He took a firm stance against what he deemed the "evil empire", aiming to prevent communist influence in the Western Hemisphere. In his second term, however, Reagan developed good relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. They worked together to reduce arms and have glasnost, or political openness. Initially, because of Reagan's military build-ups, the Soviet Union criticized him heavily. In addition to this, his defense spending greatly increased the federal deficit. Programs like his Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, aimed at improving military defense technology. Yet, with his positive relations later on, Reagan helped bring peace between the Soviets and America, which won him much praise.
Iran-Contra Affair Looking to undermine the Marxist-communist government in Nicaragua, the United States trained counterrevolutionaries, or Contras, to combat them. The training was funded by secret arms sales to Iran that were meant to encourage the release of American hostages. All of this was in the name of fighting and overthrowing communist influence in the Americas, which Reagan believed threatened American interests. In 1984, Congress discovered information about these secret missions, and banned aid to the Contras. The actions and accusations then became public in 1986. Reagan's administration faced much criticism, and ultimately, Reagan claimed no knowledge of the missions. Oliver North, the marine lieutenant who oversaw the missions, took all the blame.
Speech at Brandenburg Gate On June 12th, 1987, Reagan arrived in West Berlin. Before his arrival, many Berliners adamantly voiced their opposition to his arrival. Regardless, Reagan arrived and gave his infamous, "Tear down this wall!" speech in reference to the Berlin Wall, which had become an international symbol of the divide between the Soviet East and Democratic West. In his speech, he made claims to end the arms race and liberate the divided city. Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate had little impact or significance at the time. However, in 1989, the Berlin Wall did fall, and many looked to Reagan's speech as a preemptive indicator that the wall should and would come down. There is dispute as to how much influence Reagan's words actually had; however, the speech remains one of his most famous in regards to the ending of the Cold War.
Issues in the Middle East Reagan experienced much turmoil in the Middle East, especially in regards to preventing further Soviet influence on the region. Under Reagan, the U.S. government funded Afghan guerrilla forces to fight Soviet occupation of the country. In addition, Reagan had forces positioned in Lebanon to help keep peace in the region due to the threat of civil war. the U.S. presence in Lebanon resulted in a terrorist attack against a Marine base in 1983, killing 241 American servicemen. In response, Reagan sanctioned bombings against Syrian forces in Lebanon, and eventually withdrew all forces. Ultimately, due to the United States' funding of the Afghan militant forces, it gave birth to al-Qaeda, who would go onto attack the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

Extended Activity

Have students create a cause and effect grid to define how the next president, George H. W. Bush, conducted his foreign policy. Outline and define major events, policies, and initiatives taken by Bush, and connect them with that of Reagan’s. Draw connections between the fall of communism with issues in the Middle East.

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Reagan and the Social Issues of the 1980s

Have students use a spider map to analyze and explain Reagan’s actions concerning the major social issues of the 1980s. These include women’s equality in the workforce, the AIDS epidemic, the War on Drugs, the wealth gap, and immigration reform. Students will be able to explain and analyze the stance Reagan took on these, or other issues the teacher would like to cover, as well as how his New Right conservative views influenced such actions.

Reagan and the Social Issues of the 1980s

Women’s Rights

Women experienced both great progress and backlash throughout the 1980s under Reagan. Jobs once denied to women were being attained. However, in 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated. In addition, anti-abortion groups lobbied to prevent gains stemming from Roe vs. Wade of 1973, which gave women the right to abortion.

Aids Epidemic

Throughout the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic caused particular concern. The number of victims spiked sharply, and much effort was put into research and finding a cure. It also brought attention and controversy to the gay rights movement, as well as drug abusers.

War on Drugs

Reagan initiated staunch policies on drugs. In his "War on Drugs", Reagan increased punishments and penalties. Opposers argued his policies targeted minorities and low income citizens. Supporters of Reagan held that drug use declined dramatically. "Just Say No" became the message.

Civil Rights

Under Reagan, the federal government committed itself to extending the right to vote. Throughout the 1980s, many African Americans utilized their right to vote, and many were elected to top local and state political positions. However, Reagan also appointed conservative judges less sympathetic to civil rights, and ended affirmative action programs.

The Wealth Gap

The wealth gap between the rich and poor grew exponentially under Reagan. Such disparity had not been evident since the end of WWII. The top fifth of Americans' income increased 23% between 1980-89, while the bottom fifth rose only 9%. Wages also remained stagnant.

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map to explain and analyze the stance and actions of another president on certain social issues, namely ones related to the issues Reagan dealt with during his presidency. An example could be Obama’s actions concerning immigration, health care, and education.

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The Legacy of Ronald Reagan: Proponents and Opponents Viewpoints

While many praised Reagan for his actions, he also received much criticism. The economy did well under Reagan, but upon his departure, the economy was in worse shape than when he entered office. In addition, Reagan was praised for his foreign policy, but also criticized for his heavy military spending.

Students will use a grid storyboard to outline and explain the viewpoints on Reagan and his major decisions as president. Students will be able to explain and analyze the support and opposition Reagan met with his major executive decisions, as well as reflect from today on his presidency overall.

Regan's Legacy

Proponents Opponents
The Economy Proponents of Reagan argue that under him, the economy did well. With major tax cuts and deregulation of federal programs, many Americans experienced economic upswings. Despite recession in his early years, the economy rebounded, unemployment was down, and confidence was restored in the stock market. The number of millionaires also exploded in the 1980s. Opponents of Reagan argue that his side-supply economics and heavy military spending actually crippled the economy. Upon Reagan leaving office, the economy would enter another recession, and the national deficit had increased from $80 billion in 1980 to a peak of $221 billion in 1986. Furthermore, opponents note that Reagan's economic initiatives benefited mostly the wealthy, while the poor suffered tremendously.
Domestic Issues Proponents of Reagan praise him for his candor and restoration of nationalism amongst Americans. From his motivational speeches, to his consolation of the people after disasters like the Challenger explosion, many saw Reagan as a strong leader. Furthermore, proponents credit Reagan with his dealing of the AIDS epidemic, and attention to issues like drug abuse. Opponents of Reagan's domestic initiatives argue that simply put, he did not do enough. This is evident in his initial opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as his extremely staunch conservative views, which was seen as hindering the social welfare of many. Furthermore, his economic and welfare policies furthered the wealth gap. Opponents claim he was weak on civil rights and issues of equality.
Foreign Policy Proponents praise Reagan and his many successes in terms of his foreign policy. His handling of relations with the Soviet Union stand out the most, as he and Soviet leader Gorbachev formed a mutual, respectful relationship. In addition, Reagan also initiated major legislation concerning nuclear weapons with his INF Treaty that helped destroy over 2,500 American and Soviet missiles. Opponents of Reagan argued that, while he did experience success with his Soviet relations, he failed in others. The Iran-Contra Affair alone prompted some to call for his impeachment, despite Reagan claiming no knowledge of the situation. In addition to this, opponents claim attacks, such as that in Lebanon, are in part due to Reagan's poor handling of foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East.
Civil Rights Proponents of Reagan argue that he extended voting to many previously disenfranchised voters, particularly the African American community. In addition to this, Reagan proponents claim his support of women's rights, along with his appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman on the Supreme Court, are undeniable. Many critics of Reagan cite his inability to address the many pressing social and civil rights issues of the 1980s. From gay rights to African American rights, opponents of Reagan argue he did not do enough. In particular, they point out his initial opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday becoming a national holiday, as well as his initial blocking of the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Furthermore, the increasing wealth gap, some argue, is a testament to his ignorance of social issues.

Extended Activity

Have students analyze and explain the support and opposition towards another president. Some recommendations are George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. Students should analyze their major executive decisions as well as the support and criticisms they received.

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Timeline: Major Events of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Terms (1981-1989)

Have students use a timeline storyboard to create an outline of major events and decisions surrounding Reagan’s presidency. Students can focus on one thematic issue (such as economics or social issues) or mix and match various events that define his presidency. Students will be able to explain and outline the major events that occurred throughout Reagan’s two presidential terms (1981-1989).

Reagan Presidency Timeline


Reagan Elected President

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter to become the 40th president. Reagan brought with him a conservative platform in what historians deem the "New Right". Reagan aimed to reform major economic policies, but he also inherited a standstill Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Reagan Assassination Attempt

On March 30th, 1981, while leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech, Reagan was shot by John W. Hinckley, Jr. Despite being shot, Reagan survived the attack and his popularity soars, with his approval rating rising to 70%. Questions of his physical stamina and strength as the oldest serving president were quickly thrust aside.

Strategic Defense Initiative

In the midst of the Cold War, with tensions still rising between the U.S. and Soviet Union, Reagan called for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or as the media dubbed it, "Star Wars". Calling for a massive space satellite to intercept and destroy Soviet missiles, the initiative served as an example of Reagan's massive military defense spending.

Reagan Re-elected for Second Term

Ronald Reagan was again nominated as the Republican presidential candidate amidst his immense popularity. He defeated Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in a landslide victory, taking over 58% of the popular vote, along with a staggering 525 electoral votes.

Summit Meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva

Despite criticism both domestically and abroad for his immense military build up, Reagan continued to improve relations with the Soviet Union and newly-elected leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At the Geneva Summit, it was the first meeting of both the U.S. and Soviet heads of state since 1979.

Challenger Explosion

On January 28th, 1986, the nation watched as NASA's Challenger shuttle exploded in midair only moments after takeoff. Many were also saddened by the loss of Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Reagan addressed the nation with a sympathetic speech honoring the victims. The speech only helped increase his popularity.

Reagan Exits Office as Most Popular Since FDR

Reagan exited the executive office in 1989 with a 64% approval rating. In addition, he was deemed the most popular president to serve since FDR, a tremendous honor. Reagan left behind a much-debated legacy, yet many still loved and admired him for his true love of the United States, and restoration of American pride and nationalism.

Extended Activity

Have students swap timelines, doing either one thematic timeline on one certain issue, or have students create a holistic timeline of what defines Reagan’s presidency. It would be recommended to have students complete a thematic timeline, then utilize other students’ timelines to create a more comprehensive, holistic timeline.

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The Ronald Reagan Presidency

Ronald Reagan served as President of the United States from 1981-1989. When Reagan ran for office, the U.S. was still in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the economy was in recession, and many were looking for a solid leader to navigate the pressing social issues of the time. Reagan, a Republican, held a conservative stance. In his 1980 presidential campaign, he promised to lower taxes to stimulate the economy, reduce government interference, uphold state’s rights, and, most of all, maintain a strong national defense. All of these fundamental principles aligned with Reagan’s supply side economics, and strong stance against Soviet influence, as well as his War on Drugs, and aims at resolving several civil rights issues. Under Reagan, the 1980s were successful, as well as turbulent.

In this Storyboard That teacher guide, students will be able to organize, analyze, and explain the various actions Reagan took as president. His implementation of “Reaganomics”, ending of the Cold War, and even controversy surrounding the Iran-Contra Affair are all points of discussion to elaborate on one of the most popular presidents in American history. By using the graphic organizers on Storyboard That, students too will be able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the context and substance of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Essential Questions for The 1980s: The Presidency of Ronald Reagan

  1. What were the major events in Ronald Reagan’s political career?
  2. In what ways can we define Reagan as a conservative, and why do his conservative ideas take such a strong hold in the 1980s?
  3. How did President Reagan change the economy (and implement “Reaganomics”)?
  4. In what ways did Reagan change the position of the presidency? To what degree of success?
  5. How did Reagan handle the Cold War and other foreign policy initiatives?
  6. In what ways did Reaganomics produce success? Cause for concern?
  7. What important social debates happened under Ronald Reagan?
  8. What issues and controversies surrounded Reagan’s presidency? What legacy did Reagan leave with?

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