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Peter Beinart has been at The New Republic since 1999, where he is a journalist and editor-at-large. He is also a contributor to Time magazine and writes a monthly column[…]

Presidents who take power in a time when Americans are feeling disillusioned, or in some way defeated must be naturally good at restoring American sense of self-confidence.

Question: How do presidents learn from defeat?

Peter Beinart: I think that presidents, as a general rule, who take power in a time when Americans are feeling disillusioned, or embittered, or in some ways defeated either by war, or by something like the depression – or even, to a milder degree, the kind of economic malaise of the 1970s – that the balance that they have to strike is they have to find ways . . . they have to be naturally good at restoring American sense of self-confidence, faith in themselves, America’s belief in the greatness of their nation. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were real geniuses at that. They . . . they were in some ways geniuses of self-confidence. Their optimism and self-confidence just flowed from them. That’s one of the things that people . . . people repeatedly commented on about them during their time in public office. But I think you simultaneously have to actually . . . have to be . . . have to recognize the limits in which you function; the limits that past failure has imposed; the fact that the legacy of World War I made it much more difficult for America to enter World War II; that Franklin Roosevelt had to wait much longer than he might have wanted to to bring America into World War II because of the disillusioning effects of World War I; that Ronald Reagan had to be chastened by the legacy of Vietnam, that he couldn’t send American troops into Central America. I think thank goodness he didn’t. But he was constrained by the . . . by the memory of America’s failed military intervention in the third world. So I think it’s that balance between restoring America’s sense of pride, optimism, and self-confidence while not being reckless, and recognizing the constraints within which one has to labor.

Recorded on: 9/12/07