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Forty years ago, on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in for the first time as president of the United States. He faced turmoil at home and abroad: His Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression, staggering rates of inflation and unemployment, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran hostage crisis, and a mood of defeatism and exhaustion in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Despite all this, Reagan laid out a bracing vision of American renewal in his inaugural address. In language both plain and stirring, he appealed to the “moral courage of free men and women,” asking Americans to rededicate themselves to noble purposes. Rejecting the dreary politics of national self-loathing practiced by the Left, he revived the concept of American exceptionalism to unite and embolden a dispirited citizenry.
Though Carter’s campaign against Reagan devolved into personal attacks, Reagan never responded in kind. He thanked Carter, sitting stone-faced behind him, for offering “gracious cooperation in the transition process.” In a stunning reminder of how profoundly America’s political culture has changed, he said to Carter: “Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know . . . you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees liberty to a greater degree than any other.” Reagan never missed an opportunity to educate the world about America’s democratic achievements.
Anticipating a rising tide of identity politics and tribalism, Reagan defended the common good. He lauded the American democratic ethos that, in times of crisis, knows no ethnic or racial divisions. “All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden,” he said. “The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.” The key was to recover a vibrant, dynamic free-market economy. This objective — not massive government spending and tax increases — was the surest path to providing “equal opportunities for all Americans with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.”
Though it’s easy to forget at this historical distance, Reagan spoke to the populist and egalitarian impulses that continue to shape American political life. He decried the stagnant economy that “crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike” and “threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.” The unemployed, he said, had been plunged into “human misery” and “personal indignity,” while those who work faced a punitive tax system that harassed them and held them back.
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