First Inaugural Address

What is the basis of the new conservatism that Reagan brought to American politics with his election?
In what ways does Reagan build on the earlier work of Barry Goldwater (Acceptance Speech)? Can Reagan’s views be seen as an extension of Goldwater’s ideas? What new elements does Reagan bring to his articulation of conservatism?

Before Reagan took office in 1981, only three Republican presidents had occupied the White House since the New Deal. Unlike those previous presidents, however, Reagan became the embodiment of the conservative movements of the 1960s. Reagan was the fulfillment of a right-wing revolt that had begun with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater against the reigning liberal orthodoxy. Reagan campaigned tirelessly in 1980, promising to get government off people’s backs. He compared government to a free-spending child, suggesting, a parent can be less generous or cut the child’s allowance. The time has come to cut the government’s allowance.

Reagan picked up the endorsement of several major Protestant leaders, adding white evangelicals to his coalition,. In addition, he made inroads among right-to-life Catholics who flocked to Reagan in heavy numbers.

Expressing ideas in simple and folksy ways endeared Reagan to the masses and allowed him to explain conservative ideas to a large audience. Reagan asked voters the simple question of whether they were better off today than they were four years ago. Reagan’s message of conservatism, along with public dissatisfaction with the Carter administration, placed him in the White House. There he brought together several burgeoning social movements, such as the neo-conservatives and the supply-siders.[1] After Reagan’s nomination, he supported Republicans of all stripes running for congressional and state office and thus created a large tent for Republicans to unite under. The result was a cohesive Republican Party built around a set of conservative ideas and Reagan’s personality.

—Eric C. Sands

Source: Ronald Reagan, “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1981. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-years ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.

The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling your and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.

But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.

You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we’re not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to begin to act, beginning today.

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be