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When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as America’s 40th President on January 20, 1981, the country was experiencing some of bleakest economic times since the Depression. Taxes were high, unemployment was high, interest rates were high and the national spirit was low.

Bringing America back was the new President’s top priority. He shared his vision in his Inaugural Address:

“This Administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this ’new beginning,’ and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy.”

President Reagan had earned a degree in Economics at Eureka college, and even though he would sometimes joke about “two economists having three opinions”, he knew what needed to be done and how to do it. He had a simple, but specific plan, of which he spoke often during the campaign: cut taxes, get control of government spending and get the government out of the way so that the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people could be unleashed. Some skeptics derisively called his plan “Reaganomics,” but President Reagan was undeterred. He knew that only if people had money in their pockets and incentives to invest and build businesses would jobs be created, inflation tamed and interest rates reduced.

Almost as soon as the Inaugural ceremony was over, President Reagan set his sights on Capitol Hill. From day one, he and his team worked tirelessly to get Congress to pass legislation to put the economy back on track. Even a near-fatal assassination attempt did not slow him down. While still recovering, he summoned Congressional leaders to the White House to twist their arms. Ronald Reagan may have been the first President to wear pajamas to a meeting with the bipartisan Congressional leadership. He wanted them to know he meant business.

His efforts paid off. In August 1981, President Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which brought reductions in individual income tax rates, the expensing of depreciable property, incentives for small businesses and incentives for savings. So began the Reagan Recovery. A few years later, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 brought the lowest individual and corporate income tax rates of any major industrialized country in the world.

The numbers tell the story. Over the eight years of the Reagan Administration:

  • 20 million new jobs were created
  • Inflation dropped from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.1% by 1988
  • Unemployment fell from 7.6% to 5.5%
  • Net worth of families earning between $20,000 and $50,000 annually grew by 27%
  • Real gross national product rose 26%
  • The prime interest rate was slashed by more than half, from an unprecedented 21.5% in January 1981 to 10% in August 1988

Given actual rates of inflation, through 1987, the Reagan tax cuts saved the median-income two-earner American family of four close to $9,000 in taxes from what it would have owed in 1980.

Tax cuts were only one “leg of the stool.” The second, jobs, was equally strong. Not only were there millions of new jobs, but the benefits of job creation were not limited to one segment of society. Employment of African-Americans rose by more than 25% between 1982 and 1988, and more than half of the new jobs created went to women.

Taming the lion called government spending was another key component of the plan – the “third leg of the stool.” Here, too, President Reagan did what he said he would do. During his Administration, growth in government spending plummeted from 10% in 1982, to just over 1% in 1987. With inflation factored in, Federal spending actually went down in 1987 – the first time that had happened in well over a decade.

So impressive was the Reagan Recovery that at the G7 Economic Summit in 1983, when it was obvious the President’s plan was working, the West German Chancellor asked him to “tell us about the American miracle." That was quite a turnaround from two years earlier, when President Reagan outlined his economic recovery plan to an unconvinced group of world leaders. Now, however, they all wanted to know how he did it, so he told them: reducing tax rates restored the incentive to produce and create jobs, and getting government out of the way allowed people to be entrepreneurs. From there, the free marketplace operated as it was supposed to.

As President Reagan observed with a wry smile, “I could tell our economic program was working when they stopped calling it Reaganomics.” But what really pleased him most about the Reagan Recovery was not the vindication or all the impressive statistics. To him, the success of Reaganomics was what it brought to the American people. Millions had good jobs and were able to keep more of the money for which they worked so hard. Families could reliably plan a budget and pay their bills. The seemingly insatiable Federal government was on a much-needed diet. And businesses and individual entrepreneurs were no longer hassled by their government, or paralyzed by burdensome and unnecessary regulations every time they wanted to expand.

In a phrase, the American dream had been restored.