The next presidential race was so close, many voters stayed up until the early morning hours to see Georgia’s Democratic Governor Jimmy Carter win the 1976 election. A US Naval Academy graduate and peanut farmer, Carter won the election with a less than 2 percent popular vote margin: 50.1 percent to 48 percent. Elected by just half of the voters like Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter only earned an overall approval rating of 45.5 percent that ranged from a high of 75 percent to a low of 28 percent. The federal government was in deficit every year of the Carter presidency. Slow recovery from the ’73-‘75 recession, fuel shortages, double-digit inflation and 9 percent unemployment plagued the Carter administration which lasted one term only. The American hostage situation in Iran exacerbated disapproval of Carter.
The country turned to a former Hollywood actor and spokesperson in the 1980 election of California Republican Governor Ronald Reagan, who won with 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent and Independent Congressman John Anderson’s 6.6 percent protest vote. Reagan got his landslide reelection four years later, defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale by 58.8 percent to 40.6 percent. While Reagan’s overall approval rating is 52.8 percent, it ranged from a high of 68 percent to a low of 38 percent.
Reagan survived an assassination attempt and took credit for the end of Communism with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although he railed against the debt ceiling, it was raised 17 times during his eight year administration. His supply side Reaganomics, which his critics called “voodoo economics,” created more new debt than the combined deficits of all previous presidents. While Reagan said he was committed to reducing government spending, it rose by $321 billion during his presidency, to more than a trillion dollars. He also raised taxes seven times. Only his age and the 22nd Amendment prevented Reagan from running for a third term.
Instead, with a revenue improved economy, the enormous popularity of Ronald Reagan and relative world peace, Vice President George H. W. Bush won the presidency by defeating Massachusetts Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis by a popular vote margin of 53.4 percent to 45.7 percent. Best known for his famous pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes," a recession began. Rising deficits, a declining economy plus a growth in mandatory spending began to further increase the federal deficit. Bush’s approval ratings ranged from a high of 89 percent to a low of 29 percent.