President Reagan enjoyed unusually high popularity at the end of his second term in office, but under the terms of the U.S. Constitution he could not run again in 1988. His political heir, the vice president during all eight years of his presidency, George Bush, benefited greatly from Reagan's popularity and was elected the 41st president of the United States.
Bush campaigned by promising voters a continuation of the prosperity Reagan had brought; he also argued that his expertise could better support a strong defense for the United States than that of the Democratic Party's candidate, Michael Dukakis. Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, claimed that less fortunate Americans were hurting economically and that the government had to help those people while simultaneously bringing the federal debt and defense spending under control. The public was much more engaged, however, by Bush's economic message: a promise of no new taxes. In the balloting, Bush finished with a 54-to-46-percent popular vote margin.
During his first year in office, Bush followed a conservative fiscal program, pursuing policies on taxes, spending and debt that were faithful to the Reagan administration's economic program. Yet, with an outsized budget deficit and a deficit-reduction law requiring that it be pared, Bush found himself locked into a program permitting few if any new budget items while requiring spending cuts. Thus, administration policies that would cost Washington the least progressed the furthest. On environmental protection and education -- issues in which private industry and local and state government pay most of the bills -- Bush introduced changes in policy. In November 1990, Bush signed sweeping legislation to impose new federal standards on urban smog, automobile exhaust, toxic air pollution and acid rain, but most of the costs were assigned to industrial polluters. He signed legislation ensuring physical access for the disabled, but the costs were transferred to business. The president also launched a campaign to encourage volunteerism for social beneficence, which he called, in a memorable phrase, "a thousand points of light."