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  • "What Went Wrong?"--Assessing Obama's Legacy

    • Posted on Aug 18, 2015
    This appeared in Sunday's (8-16) Waterloo Courier, and probably is the first of two installments, as you'll see if you read to the end.  Yes, Obama didn't do what he might have done, but. . . 

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    Now that the end of President Obama’s second term looms, pundits of all persuasions have begun to ponder his presidency.  How good is/was he? 

     Did he fix problems?  Did he create new ones?  In what ways has he been good and bad for the country?  Did he forsake more promises then he fulfilled?    

     Granted, answers to these questions will no doubt change over the years. Presidents’ reputations rise and fall depending on unpredictable events and issues.  So current assessments of Barack Obama’s presidency are tentative at best. 

     Still, pundits need to work, and Presidents’ policies and personalities provide it, nonstop.  This applies especially to Obama, our first Black president, and a man whose actions have been endlessly scrutinized by a deeply hostile opposition.   

     The latest and most interesting assessment comes from David Bromwich, a Yale English Professor and political commentator.  His essay in the June Harper’s magazine,  “What Went Wrong?” offers a critical analysis of Obama, and deserves reading, especially for the President’s longtime supporters. 


     
    Bromwich is no hard left or right ideologue, as so many political commentators seem to be.  He offers a balanced, serious, and important analysis of Obama’s “centrist” approach to issues and problems.  

    Very likely, “What Went Wrong” will serve as a reference point for future historians looking to assess Obama’s legacy.  

    Essentially, Bromwich measures the President against an implied ideal leader—and Obama inevitably falls short.   For Bromwich, events since 2008 called for a decisive personality with no fear of conflict and political manipulation.  

    The ideal Obama would have handled an obstructionist GOP immediately, raised hackles to the skies, and proceeded through political mayhem to get a single payer health care system, closing down Guantanamo, and would have avoided getting bogged down Afghanistan.   

    That’s the powerful, decisive Obama who never appeared, insists Bromwich.  
    Instead, his unshakeable belief in working from consensus and agreement led to paralysis and indecision with too little follow-through, which would have taken serious political courage. 

     Issues like gun control and climate change have gone by the wayside because of vicious and organized political opposition that he might have confronted, especially during his first two years, when Democrats controlled both houses.   

     Bromwich ends his analysis with the damning assertion that . . .”Much as
    one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance.”

    Because Bromwich compares Obama to what so many voters expected and wanted, rather than what we got, he falls short, and this frustrates supporters as much as detractors. 

    Yet there’s another way to measure him, and that has to do with comparing him to what he actually did accomplish.   That comparison yields a different result. 

     As an example of comparing ideal vs. real, consider measuring America by its ideals—its rebellion against an oppressive regime and founding documents based on enlightenment ideas of freedom, rights, equality, and justice. A shining city on a hill indeed.  

     But measured by how it actually treated indigenous peoples, slaves, women, and non-propertied citizens, it’s no better than any other country, and in some ways worse. 

    Ideal vs. real always yields such different results.   So too with Obama.   

     In fact, Bromwich himself asserts at beginning of “What Went Wrong?”   “His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.”

     So compared to recent past and near-future Presidents, Obama stands tall. 
    Indeed, I would hope for another article soon from another pundit, “What Went Right?”  

    Plenty did, in spite of a shamelessly hostile GOP.  






     
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  • Tribute to an Old Friend

    • Posted on May 03, 2015
    Here is this morning's Courier column on Lynn Nielsen, who died Monday, April 20.  He is widely and deeply missed.  I took this photo on Easter Sunday, fifteen days before he died.  


    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    My old lunch buddy, fellow bar musician, church organist, UNI colleague, Danish chef, spiritual seeker, neighborhood activist, world traveler, and creative spirit left us for good on April 20th. 

     Lynn Nielsen left a large and sad band of mourners who will grieve his absence while feeling grateful for all he gave.   

     Over the last decade or so, Lynn and I had become close friends. I loved his passion for improving his neighborhood, his deep engagement with UNI as a professor and mentor, his musicianship as a jazz pianist and church organist, his quest for travel, especially to Paris, where he arranged to play massive cathedral pipe organs, and his openness to discussing religion and spirituality no matter where it led.    

     During our many lunches, we toasted friendship and discussed the state of everything. I treasured our conversations.     

     Otherworldly matters came up over worldly lunches with wine—the French touch.  We explored spiritual issues after a column I wrote on “Promise Keepers,” a Christian men’s movement that I had pointedly criticized, and which he supported. 

     He wanted to discuss his commitment to the group.  I readily agreed to meet, since he was articulate and funny.  Humor goes a long ways toward dissolving differences. 

     Soon we enjoyed common ground.  Our mutual passions—music, books, and teaching—gave us plenty to hash over.  We also realized that we shared questions about not just our own beliefs, but all beliefs.  

     “We all want the same things,” he’d say, wondering why people sink into pointless and endless squabbles.   

     I had been a born-again Christian as a teenager, gave it up, and gradually discovered Buddhism through years of meditation and workshops.  Lynn had been a lifelong Lutheran who discovered it wasn’t the only religion that made sense.  He knew history, and how many religions were based on legend and myth, widely believed through sheer repetition.   

     He held his beliefs dear, and I respected him for that.   

     As we agreed, the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt.  Humility is a central trait of all genuine spiritual seekers, and involves degrees of questioning and doubt.  

     Lynn never insisted that his was the one and only truth. Nor did I.  Along with music, that kept us friends.  He always, and I mean always, sent extended comments on my columns, and I learned from his observations and criticisms.  He humbled me more than once.  

     Lynn struggled with people who excluded and judged others based on their beliefs—that was not what Christ stood for.  

     He believed that Christianity should stand for compassion, generosity, and gratitude, as do all world religions at their core. 

     However, as Gandhi put it, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  I used that quote as a bumper sticker, and he loved that.   

     Of course Gandhi didn’t mean all Christians, and certainly not Lynn Nielsen.  
    Lynn walked the walk, being more like Christ—without a trace of religiosity or pride—than many Christians I’ve known. 

     He was a Pope Francis Christian, not a Jerry Falwell Christian.    

     Though he never preached, he often mentored, and several men from a Bible study group he led testified at a friends gathering that his insights and challenges led them to deeper understandings of Christianity.  They expressed profound thanks for his guidance and leadership. 

     Besides, he threw great parties, or “lovefests,” as he called them.  He created tables full of Danish dishes, pastries, desserts, all accompanied by plenty of well-chosen wines. He loved diversity, and invited friends, neighbors, colleagues, students—anyone who would enjoy lovefesting.    
     
    And before dinner, we always sang  “Amazing Grace.”  
    How sweet was that sound.  

     We’re all bereft.   

     


     
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