Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom shows up our swamp-ridden politics | Jonathan Freedland

No wonder the economy is in a mess – our leaders have lost sight of the national interest as they pursue party advantage

One of the many highlights of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln comes when the president encounters Thaddeus Stevens, a radical committed not merely to abolishing slavery, but to racial equality. In this meeting, it is Stevens who is the man of principle and Lincoln who sings an ode to political pragmatism. The president explains that a compass will point you to true north, "but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing true north?"

It is the time-honoured plea of the progressive, yet practical politician: high principles are all very well, but useless if not accompanied by the low cunning of politics. Stevens can keep reiterating the moral necessity of the destination, but it takes Lincoln's pragmatic mastery of the grubby business of politics to get there.

Would that today's politics were a battle of Lincolns against Stevenses. Our masters now have the reverse problem to the one Lincoln diagnosed in his idealistic colleague. So focused are they on dodging the swamps and negotiating the chasms that they lose sight of – and stray ever further away from – true north.

This week brought two grim illustrations of the habit, relating to the twin questions that dominate the politics of our time: the economy and Europe. Of the two it is not David Cameron's speech on Wednesday but rather the gloomy picture confirmed by Friday's growth figures which will have the greater bearing on the fate of the government.

In fact, "growth figures" needs to come wrapped in quotation marks. For these were "contraction figures", as they have been for four of the last five quarters. A shrinkage of 0.3% for the last quarter tells us that overall the British economy flatlined in the Olympic year of 2012. The official projections promised growth of 2%, but it turned out there was none at all. It's not that the Olympics didn't do their job as a Keynesian stimulus – they did that job heroically – but it was only enough to cancel out deterioration everywhere else.

The true north for any chancellor should not be hard to work out. In May 2010 it was more obvious than usual: George Osborne's duty was to ensure that the economic recovery, just begun under Labour, continued and did not reverse back into recession. He had to aim at that single goal. Everything else should have been secondary.

But Osborne's focus was elsewhere. He kept eyeing the swamps and deserts of politics, not in order to avoid them, lest they jeopardise the economic growth needed by the country, but seeing there the opportunity for political advantage which might help his party.

This worked in multiple ways. First, Osborne spotted an ideological opening. During the years of plenty, he and Cameron had committed themselves to match Labour's spending levels (worth remembering that when they next allege Labour profligacy). Once the crash came, and realising that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, they saw their chance to return to the more ideologically comfortable terrain of the small state. Except this time they could say they were slashing the state in the name of necessary austerity, rather than Thatcherite dogma.

Osborne saw another advantage. His original plan called for total eradication of the deficit within five years, a deliberate desire to over-achieve that was, again, motivated chiefly by politics rather than economics: he aimed to store up enough cash to fund a series of pre-election tax cuts just in time for 2015. The country would go through the shock therapy of accelerated austerity, not because it was in the national interest, but so that Osborne could deliver a Tory majority.

As political strategy, it must have looked oh so smart; but, as economics, it has proved disastrous. The warnings from anyone familiar with the Keynes chapter in an economics textbook – that hyper-austerity in the midst of recession sucks out demand, chokes any prospect of recovery and, thanks to spending money on dole rather than work, leaves governments borrowing more – have been there from the very start, growing louder with each passing and failing quarter. These days even the International Monetary Fund and Boris Johnson are saying it (the London mayor tactfully and tactically demanding only that the "rhetoric" of austerity be junked). But Osborne refuses to change course, once again for reasons that are all about the swamps and chasms of politics rather than the true north of Britain's economic wellbeing. It is not mere coincidence that the chancellor's second job is as Conservative electoral supremo: the former role is performed in the service of the latter.

Regardless of the evidence that the deficit fetish is not working, the chancellor can't abandon Plan A: the politics simply won't let him. To do so would be to admit that the man the Tories love to hate, Ed Balls, his shadow, was right all along. Nick Clegg may have only now had his epiphany, admitting that he has at last "realised" that in a downturn governments need to keep spending on infrastructure, but Balls was one of those shouting that from the rooftops in the summer of 2010.

Indeed, to admit that hyper-austerity was a mistake is as impossible for Clegg as it is for Osborne. For austerity is the raison d'etre of this coalition. It was the claim that only a diet of tax rises (for all but the wealthiest, as it turned out) and drastic spending cuts could save the nation that joined Lib Dems and Conservatives in the first place. To change now would be to admit their union was founded on a mistake. And so the country is fated to continue on this path into the economic wilderness, because the politics demand it.

On Europe it's a similar story. If the national interest was all Cameron cared about, there is no way he would be starting the clock on a five-year countdown to an in-out referendum, his own eventual stance conditional – with all the uncertainty that brings – now. You can be all in favour of the British people having their say on Europe and still concede that Cameron's motive was one of political management, quieting his Euro-loathing backbenchers and aiming to deny Ukip its USP.

Of course, politicians have to be politicians. But the fate of our economy and our relationship with Europe are big and serious questions. They deserve to be determined by more than the petty calculation of immediate advantage. With leaders who have lost sight of their true north, it's no wonder our economy and much else is heading true south.

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Obama’s inauguration day: all that’s missing is the Queen’s golden coach

Avowedly egalitarian US likes as much pomp and ceremony as it can muster when it proclaims to the world it has chosen

America will on Monday witness its quadrennial act of political alchemy. The base metal of a previously partisan candidate is transformed by the incantation of a few, solemn words into gold, becoming not just a head of government but a head of state – the only figure capable of transcending low politics and representing the republic itself.

That, at least, is the idea. Inauguration day is when the American presidency is revealed as not merely an executive office – even if, still, the most powerful in the world – but also a kind of secular monarchy. On Monday the avowedly egalitarian United States – which rejected all things regal when it broke from the British mother-country, insisting its president be known not as His Majesty but as plain Mister – anoints its leader with as much ceremony and ritual as it can muster. The oath, the address, the anthem, the parade: all that's missing is the Queen's golden coach.

The magic is most visible with a new president. Second inaugurations are rare – Barack Obama is only the 16th person since George Washington to reach that milestone – but they lack the same alchemical grandeur. After all, the man placing his hand on the Bible – in Obama's case the copy that belonged to Dr Martin Luther King – has already been transformed once before. (That's not counting Sunday's private swearing-in.)

The goal of a second inaugural is to repeat the trick, to persuade Americans once again to see the man on the Capitol steps as the leader of the entire nation, not just one section of it. Throughout 2012, Obama was stuck in the bearpit of a hard-fought election campaign. The ceremony's purpose is to lift him out, dust him down and present him not as the Democrats' candidate, but as the nation's president.

In Obama's case, that's an especially tall order. The inauguration of 2009 had a romance not easily equalled, stemming chiefly from the historic first Obama represented. Everyone felt it, those wearing Obama's name or face on their hats or badges, the 1.8 million who braved snow and sub-zero temperatures to cram the National Mall, those like Robert Davis, an African-American man then aged 63 who had made the journey from Cincinnati, Ohio. "This moment won't come again," he told me then. "There may be another black American president, but this will always be the first time."

Even those presidencies that did not carry so great a weight of expectation, the promise of "hope and change", have struggled to relight the fire four years later. Most second inaugural speeches are swiftly forgotten – any takers for Bill Clinton's "one common destiny"? – with perhaps just two granted an enduring place in the collective American memory. Why most fail, and why those two succeeded, gives a useful guide for the task facing Obama just after noon US time on Monday.

Failure comes with any attempt to look backward, to defend the record of the first few years. Surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson is said to have made that mistake. Voters had their fill of that in the election campaign: now they want to know what's coming.

The usual path is to promise a new, united future, vowing to heal wounds of the past and usher in bipartisan co-operation on the big challenges facing the nation. The model here is what's deemed the greatest ever second inaugural address, that delivered by Abraham Lincoln, as he swore "to bind up the nation's wounds" after a civil war whose last dead had only just been buried.

The trouble for that speech's imitators is that when reaching for the same spirit of unity, they descend instead into platitude and banality. The alternative is the only other memorable second inauguration text, delivered by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, when he combatively made the case against American poverty: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

This is what Obama's liberal supporters would like to hear, the Obama of their 2008 dreams, setting out the purpose of his second term and all but welcoming the opposition he is bound to face. The domestic agenda is clear enough. The Newtown massacre demands action on guns; immigration reform is long overdue; and looming over everything is the same problem that dominated his first term: the economy and the quest for jobs.

So far there have been signs of a new, more bullish Obama, now freed from the burden of seeking re-election. He held firm on his nomination of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon, despite pressure to drop him, and last week got congressional Republicans to blink first in a confrontation over raising the debt ceiling. His rhetoric is sharper, his willingness to blame the Republicans, rather than both sides, for their obstructionism greater too.

The Washington conventional wisdom is urging Obama to take the path of Lincoln on Monday and he will surely make all the right unifying noises. But FDR offered a different, no less compelling precedent, suggesting inauguration day can conjure a kind of magic – even the second time around.

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Obama’s second inaugural address: panel verdict

As President Obama embarks on a second term, did his speech still soar, his message inspire? Guardian columnists decide

Jonathan Freedland: 'A full-throated case for the very idea of government'

They say second inaugurals lack the power of the first, that they can't match the impact and novelty of seeing a one-time candidate transformed anew, into a president. But they have one crucial advantage. The second time around the president does not have to watch and weigh his words, worried about his chances for re-election. This time, he can speak freely, knowing he will never face the voters again. Which is what explains the speech we just witnessed, a speech delivered by an Obama unbound.

This was a full-throated case for the very idea of government, a speech which, both in its core argument and additional flourishes, located Obama unashamedly on the liberal left. Shorter and less ponderous shorter than his 2009 address, it was not roundabout but cut straight to the point:

"Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."

The very word "collective" can bring some on the American right out in hives. But Obama was direct. It would take government, not just a Steve Jobs or two, to prepare the US for the 21st century.

"No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores."

This was a more elegant articulation of the view that landed Obama in trouble during the 2012 campaign: that if you built a business, "you didn't build that" alone – you benefited from American society working together.

But that was not the only reason why some on Twitter hastily branded the speech "socialist". Obama also insisted that America cannot function unless everyone shares in its riches. He spoke up for Medicare, Medicaid, and social security, tacitly rebuking Mitt Romney's talk of a parasitic "47%", by saying of those programmes:

"They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Progressive hearts will have lifted at the reference to the feminist landmark of Seneca Falls, the gay battleground of Stonewall (making this the first inaugural address to include the word "gay"), the implicit promise of action on equal marriage, and the rallying cry on climate change. But it was the core message of the speech that marked Obama out as a kindred spirit.

More than 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan used his inaugural address to declare government "the problem". Here was Obama unleashed at last, ready to defend government as the tool of We the People – and promising to use it for good.

Jill Filipovic: 'By the time Beyonce was singing, my cynicism was abated'

Whether you like or loathe Barack Obama, his inauguration today put one brilliant vision of America on display. A Latina supreme court justice who grew up in the South Bronx swearing in the vice-president; a gay Cuban-American abuse survivor the inauguration poet laureate; a civil rights icon whose husband was slain for the crime of seeking equality delivering the inaugural prayer; a man with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother, the middle name "Hussein" and an Indonesian childhood taking the oath of the presidency for a second term.

Not to mention the fact that this was a public swearing-in that occurred on a national holiday most Americans have off work – not a holiday for the inauguration, but in memory of a radical political leader who advocated for racial equality, economic justice and the end of war, and who was repaid with FBI surveillance, incarceration and, in the end, assassination.

It's not a vision that all Americans embrace – even though you'd be hard-pressed now to find many who would admit, with hindsight and in public, that they would have supported things like slavery and segregation. This fact – that still, the United States has not fully realized its promises of fairness, that we are a country populated by a great many people who actively work against justice, that obstructionists to equality control one of our two political parties – was perhaps the most important theme highlighted in Obama's speech.

His speechwriters, as usual, were more than adept at crafting a broad narrative, appealing to American traditionalist sensibilities by highlighting the words and deeds of our founding fathers, and employing the campaign-winning rhetoric of unity and shared American values. But in painting our historical arc, President Obama's choices were particularly telling: Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.

Those places didn't simply host events that resonate with the traditionally marginalized groups who now make up a majority of the American population. Those are the places that made this inauguration story possible.

By emphasizing Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, President Obama painted them into the official portrait of America, right next to George Washington and the Declaration of Independence. Not all of us were made independent in 1776 and not all of our rights were reflected in the original bill of ten; Obama made sure his telling of American history included all Americans.

His calls for equal pay, marriage equality, immigrants' rights, and voting rights sent the clear message that those ideals are part of the same line. They are what Martin Luther King Jr called "the long arc of history" hopefully bending toward justice. (They also seemed carefully selected not just for a general listening audience, but for the panel of supreme court justices sitting in front of him, and gearing up for hearings on most of those very issues in the coming months.)

It's inspiring to see our president using his inaugural podium to advocate for the poor, the tired, the huddled masses trying to breathe free. By the time Beyonce was singing the national anthem, my cynicism from his last term had at least partly abated.

Yet the history lesson demonstrated more than just how far we've come. It's 2013 and we are still asking that women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, gays, and lesbians be treated as equal citizens. Our historical arc is still bending toward justice, but still obstructed, still not quite there.

Heidi Moore: 'An elegantly stated to-do list of economic promises yet to be kept'

Obama's second inaugural address was designed to be stirring look into a populist future – he reportedly consulted historians on how to construct it. But it was, instead, a very elegantly stated to-do list on what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term. Among those items: tackle the unemployment crisis; end the expensive wars; do something about climate change (a topic he largely ignored during the campaign), as well as revamp the tax code; and shrink the gap between the 1% and the 99%:

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."

It's no surprise, then, that the largest item on Obama's to-do list took up the largest portion of the economic elements of his speech: the lingering thorns of the "fiscal cliff" fight about government spending. Key Republicans have aimed to cut entitlements, like social security and Medicaid. Obama has alternately demanded that the entitlements are not on the negotiating table and has urged Republicans not to touch them. He made one big pitch again on that stage:

"We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and social security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great."

That "nation of takers" line should not go unnoticed: it echoes Obama's speech only a week ago, urging Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, in which Obama said America "is not a deadbeat nation". And that is the key to Obama's second term: it's about owing and paying.

Some of the conventional wisdom during the election held that voters were perhaps not as enchanted with Obama as they had been four years ago, but that they wanted to give him the chance to finish what he started. In their eyes, he owes them a lot on those campaign promises.

It's probably encouraging to them to hear this speech and realize that he does, after all, intend to pay up.

Michael Wolff: 'Each piece a nod to some group or interest'

Presidents seem to have long ago given up the pretense that an inaugural address should be different from other speeches – or they've lost the ability to make it so.

We may naturally wish for a larger story, a greater understanding, an elevated view. But this is a speech like any other: lots of stuff crammed together, each piece a nod to some group or interest, like a meal of little bites. Or a resounding thud of cliches.

President Obama began with predictable shibboleths about American democracy, and the usual self-congratulations about once again having elected a president and having an inauguration. He quoted founding documents – nothing new, just the most hackneyed phrases. He then spoke of the journey, to bridge those words with the reality of our time, and set the journey theme that would run throughout the speech.

His basic answer about how to bridge the historic sentiments with our current predicament was an active government. This was the essential, if unsurprising, point of the speech: freedom needs government oversight and regulation. Except, he rushed to say … this won't happen by government alone, but requires hard work and responsibility … Except, he rushed to take back … preserving individual freedom requires collection action. How else are we gong to build roads and research labs? Duh.

There was the requisite echo of JFK (the last president who is thought to have given an inaugural-worthy speech): this is a generation of American tested by crisis.

The point being that things are bad, but with less partisanship, they can get better. "We will seize this moment as long as we seize it together …"

Then a bow to the "broad shoulders of the rising middle class", followed shortly by the use of the word "harnessing". Something of a nod to the working man.

He hits the big issues: healthcare and the general social safety net – "social commitments don't make us a nation of takers." Then climate change: an elevation for this issue, and a dig at people who don't accept science (you know who you are). Then peace – or if not quite peace, at least the president comes out squarely against perpetual war (with another JFK echo: we're a generation "tempered by the flames of battle").

And then a catch-all call out to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the victims of prejudice. (At this point, three-quarters through, it becomes evident that he is surely not going to pull out a memorable speech.) Then, a bow to women, to mothers and daughters who ought to have equitable earning power.

And to our gay brothers and sisters who ought to be treated equally under the law. And immigrants. And children … and a fleeting reference to Newtown.

And a dig at Republicans who mistake "absolutism for principle" and "name-calling for reasoned debate". And finally, a note to lower expectations with the reminder: "our work will be imperfect, victories only partial."

No new ground or more deeply-focused ambitions. No lessons learned, nor line in the stand. No clear reason for being.

But the speech was short.

Martin Kettle: 'Peaceful engagement is the aspiration for the second term'

Watching the inauguration from across the Atlantic, Barack Obama's address was at once strikingly distinctive and remarkably familiar.

It was, on the one hand, the inaugural speech of the president of the United States and not an address to the rest of the world. So its primary audience was, equally obviously, the American voter and the American people (as apotheosised in Obama's rhetoric).

The majority of the speech seemed very specific to the American experience and very specific to the American present. There were overarching American themes – like the connections to the nation's revolutionary history, its civil war, the legacy of slavery and discrimination. There was also the more immediate American referencing of issues like economic recovery, healthcare costs, the deficit, the impact of storms, and the way the speech privileged immigration.

A foreign observer notes these things, while also reflecting that the US political system seems well-designed to frustrate much of what Obama would like to do in such fields. But this is a day for optimism.

On the other hand, this was also inescapably an address to the rest of a world – of which, even today, the US is the first among unequals. Here, three things stand out to foreign ears.

First, this was a very recognisable speech: no European social democrat or centre-left politician from around the globe could fail to identify with Obama's lofty attempt to validate the role of government within an essential acceptance of market capitalism, or his appeal to national unity, or, in particular, the strong defence of the welfare principle. Britain's Labour leader Ed Miliband, for example, will have been delighted to hear Obama invoke the "one nation" theme, which is at the heart of his own attempt to reposition Labour in the UK.

Second, the speech made a particular point of highlighting climate change, and the path to sustainability. This was one of the areas in which the Obama first term was disappointing to international environmental opinion. Some will see the saliency of the issue in the president's second inaugural as mere words. But many around the planet will be encouraged to use the speech's pledges to try to push climate issues back up the agenda, after their relegation during the economic downturn.

Finally, while the speech was inevitably short on foreign and security specifics, it was noticeable that Obama at least mentioned the Middle East, Asia, and Africa – though not, unless I missed it, Europe: an omission that will feed insecurity in every capital of the EU.

Obama's principal foreign policy claim was that this is the end of a decade of war. But he went out of his way to make clear that America is not pulling up the drawbridge. Peaceful engagement is the aspiration for the second term.

Lots of world opinion will be deeply cynical. But on a day such as this, one can at least hope it means something.

Ana Marie Cox: 'An unpleasant reminder for Republicans that their guy lost – and their ideas'

So which inauguration did you watch?

I watched the one they showed on Fox News – you know, between updates on Benghazi and the Algerian hostages. That's how frustrated they are over at Fox with having to report on Obama's inauguration: they'd rather report "the news" instead.

For them, not only was the event marking Obama's second term in office an unpleasant reminder that their guy lost, but the speech itself was also an unpleasant reminder that their ideas lost. The Fox News host Chris Wallace complained afterwards that the speech lacked any mention of deficit reduction. Fair enough: "deficit reduction" is the "horses and bayonets" of political warfare – outmoded, antique, irrelevant to the larger task at hand.

In his rhetoric, at least, and at least today, Obama's moved past the picayune, and instead, gave a speech outlining the biggest goals America can strive for: equality, justice, even revolution.

Also on Fox, columnist Charles Krauthammer harrumphed: "There's not a line here that will ever be repeated." Apparently, he missed the echo that followed Obama's invocation of Stonewall – and the mere mention of the word "gay".

This was not a conciliatory speech, to be sure. This was not a speech that sought to reach across the aisle. This was a speech that looked forward, not to the side.

Those who argue that Obama lost an opportunity to soothe conservative egos (or maybe just their fears) by forsaking moderation or apology might have forgotten that he did a lot of that, I dunno, four years ago. I don't know if this relative stridency will work better than reconciliation, as far as advancing Obama's goals is concerned, but at least he's setting those goals higher.

Michael Cohen: 'A future-oriented address with an unmistakably progressive sheen'

Over the weekend, I wrote for the Guardian that inaugural addresses tend to be banal, platitudinous affairs with saccharine pieties to national unity – and the Barack Obama's second inaugural was unlikely to be much different. Today, Barack Obama proved that argument quite wrong.

Rather than an empty call to national unity, Obama offered one of the most full-throated defenses of liberalism that this or any other president has delivered – and he did so in the shadow of unquenchable internecine political conflict. There was an attack on inequality:

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

There was a loud and unabashed pushback on those who would slash social insurance programs:

"The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and social security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

There was a call to arms on climate change – and a pointed attack on those who would deny its risk:

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."

And finally, there was an extraordinary defense of gay rights that linked it directly to the cause of women's suffrage and civil rights:

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."

In short, this was the speech of a man who is not intent to rest on his first-term laurels, but rather, one who is inclined to use his second term to push forward an agenda that is not only bold, but unapologetically progressive. Instead of a mushy call for national unity, Obama made clear in his remarks that rather than reconcile himself to the nation's toxic and dysfunctional politics, it is the president's opponents who must reconcile themselves to his program.

And this was apparent in the very make-up of the inaugural ceremony, officiated by a female Puerto Rican supreme court justice, a Jewish emcee, a gay Cuban poet, a black female invocation speaker, a southern white senator, a choir from Brooklyn, and a black president: this is America.

On a day when the nation honors one of its greatest citizens, Martin Luther King Jr, what we saw at the Capitol was the dream MLK talked about nearly five decades ago at the other end of the Mall. In short, this was not the favorite inaugural ceremony for the president's loudest and extreme opponents.

This was not simply the political coalition that re-elected Barack Obama president, but the coming destiny of this nation. And in the shadow of that diverse and cosmopolitan image of this America's future, Obama offered a political agenda very much in tune with that tableau. This was a very future-oriented address, with an unmistakably progressive sheen.

None of this means Obama will be successful in his second term. There is still the matter of radical House Republicans whom Obama sought quite clearly to isolate in his remarks. But however the next four years play out, what was clear is that Obama will not go down without a fight – and he will do so from the leftward side of the political spectrum.

Naomi Wolf: 'Restore freedom locally before claiming to extend it globally'

The spectacle on the Mall during President Obama's inauguration was a scene of the great theatre of "democracy" – but masking what will likely go into the history books as the greatest loss of democracy in the United States in its history (short, perhaps, of President Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the civil war). President Obama's first term consolidated more than George W Bush had managed to do: the loss of central freedoms guaranteed in the US constitution.

Freedom was invoked in President Obama's remarks, as in the others'. But what does "freedom" in these speeches really refer to now?

The tragedy of this moment is that since 2008, the balance of power has completely changed between those on the dais and those in the Mall. Those on the dais can ignore them; eavesdrop on them; and now, it seems, disarm them (though I hate guns, I recognize another constitutional right when it is under fire – this time with an unprecedented two-score executive orders).

Those on the dais can now imprison at will those in the Mall and keep them forever. The president can, if he puts their name on a list, kill them.

In his remarks, President Obama did not just declare that ten years of war are over – a tactic I now recognize (from Piers Brendon's excellent history, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) as being the kind of thing that British imperialists declared to home audiences periodically, even as they ramped up wars of choice in region after region – but promised to "act on behalf of those who long for freedom globally".

Really? How about starting at home: how about restoring freedom locally before claiming to extend it globally?

And why not celebrate a new term by actually recognizing what an inauguration in America is – not an investment of power (a mistake the speakers kept making), but an assumption by the executive of a responsibility, an obligation, contracted in an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States".

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A load of Thunderballs: James Bond is fiction, not a police instruction manual | Jonathan Freedland

A shocking ruling (let's call it the 007 standard) gives undercover police licence to break hearts. It's the hacking of people's lives

Behold a new legal threshold: let's call it the 007 standard. Apparently the law now allows secret agents to get up to all manner of mayhem, just so long as it's something James Bond might have done. Threatening to strangle a woman with her own bikini top? Powering a speedboat, both on and besides the Thames, destroying everything in your wake? Forcing a shark-gun pellet into a man's mouth, so he blows up like a balloon. All fully lawful, m'lud: can I refer the court to Diamonds Are Forever, The World Is Not Enough and Live and Let Die?

This new principle of jurisprudence was unveiled at the high court this week by Mr Justice Tugendhat, as he ruled on whether a case brought by 10 women and one man duped into fraudulent relationships by undercover police officers should be heard in open court or in a secret tribunal.

The decision hinged on whether the law governing agents of the state allows them to form sexual relationships with those they spy upon. The good judge believes that when MPs wrote the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in 2000, permitting undercover police to form "personal or other" relationships, they must have meant it to include sexual relationships. After all, the legislators were bound to have had one particular secret agent in mind. "James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women," Tugendhat declared, lending "credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature".

That came as a shock to the women involved in the case, and not only them. The former director of public prosecutions, Ken, now Lord, Macdonald, thought the judge's mention of 007 "ludicrous". Ripa, he told me, is an extremely serious piece of legislation, "one that determines the extent to which our private lives can be intruded upon by the state. It's undermining of parliament's reputation as a serious body to suggest it took into account the mad escapades of a fictional spy".

Talk of Bond only highlights one of the absurdities at the heart of this sad, strange saga that first came to light two years ago, when the Guardian revealed how a police officer named Mark Kennedy had infiltrated the environmental protest movement and become intimate with the activists he was monitoring. The absurdity in question is that of proportionality. At least Bond was confronting mighty adversaries with demonic ambitions to destroy the world: no wonder he had to cut the odd ethical corner. But Kennedy and the other cops were, mostly, targeting domestic groups that posed no such threat. It's true that one undercover policeman caught the Animal Liberation Front activists who had planted incendiary devices in fur-selling department stores (at night, with no one around) – a policeman who has himself been accused in parliament of detonating one of the devices – but the target was usually more Citizen Smith than Dr No. In one case, the police infiltrated an anti-war group called the Clown Army whose existential threat to national security consisted of running around Leeds city centre brandishing feather dusters. Blofeld, it wasn't.

But that the judge thought to mention Bond is perhaps revealing. For even those who would defend Ian Fleming's character from charges of misogyny would concede that he often regards women as disposable. And that is the crux of this case, brought by a group of women who believe their innermost lives were regarded as so valueless they could be used by covert police as mere props, devices to shore up agents' cover stories and prove they were good-faith activists rather than frauds.

Some may question how much the women involved really suffered: they were with a man long ago who was not what he claimed to be – OK, not nice, but move on. Such an attitude was hinted at in the remarks by a male activist who slept with an undercover policewoman in a tent at a "climate camp" and who told the Guardian he did not want to sue the police because the one-night stand was "nothing meaningful".

But for the others these were not one-night stands, they were relationships of long standing – six years in one case, five in another – that were enormously meaningful. Those involved tell of deep and genuine attachments, the men integrated into their lives as partners, living together, travelling together, attending family gatherings, sitting at a parent's bedside, even attending a funeral.

There are at least four children from these relationships, some of whom have only now, decades later, discovered who their father really was – and that they were born of a great act of deception.

The greatest pain seems to have come afterwards. Uncannily, most of the relationships all seem to have ended the same way: a sudden departure, a postcard from abroad, and then silence. Some women spent months or even years trying to work out what had gone wrong, travelling far in search of answers. Others found that their ability to trust had been shattered. If the man they had loved turned out to be an agent of the state, what else should they be suspicious of? Could they trust their colleagues, their friends? And the question that nags above all others: was it all a fake, did he not love me at all? One woman tells friends simply: "Five years of my life was built on a lie."

There was rightly an outcry about the News of the World's hacking of people's voicemail messages. But this was the hacking of people's lives, burrowing into the most intimate spaces of the heart in order to do a job, all authorised by the police. It is state-sanctioned emotional abuse.

The present tense is appropriate because there is no reason to believe this kind of police activity, begun in 1968 when Scotland Yard started to infiltrate groups opposed to the Vietnam war, has stopped. The police have not apologised or vowed to give up the practice. Instead, they simply refuse to confirm or deny that the men involved worked as agents at all. A dozen people are taking legal action in total, but those who have followed the case closest – the Guardian's Paul Lewis and Rob Evans – are convinced there are many more victims, including some who still don't know that a past partner conned them. Almost every undercover cop so far identified found himself a lover in the group under surveillance: it was the norm, a standard part of their tradecraft.

This is a question for the police, whose view of women as so dispensable surely suggests a kind of institutional sexism, but also for the state itself. Either it knew or it didn't know what these men were up to, apparently in the service of the crown: both possibilities are indefensible. There is no licence to kill, and there can be no licence to break human hearts, to inflict lasting psychological trauma. The James Bond stories are thrillers, not an instruction manual for an unaccountable state.

Twitter: @j_freedland

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This is about more than Oxfam

On Sunday the Board of Deputies of British Jews will decide whether it should go ahead with a joint project with Oxfam, in which the aid organisation will train 25 Jewish volunteers, equipping them to become better campaigners. The idea is that Jewish organisations working against poverty and hunger — the likes of, say, World Jewish Relief or Tzedek — will gain expertise from a body with unmatched experience in the field.

Put like that, it sounds uncontentious. Who could be against anything that could help those in desperate need? But this is the Jewish community, where things are rarely so simple. There is a vocal group, active in the Board, who believe that Oxfam is “institutionally anti-Israel” and who worry that the project will be used by Oxfam to disguise this fact. They believe the Board is naively proposing to give the non governmental organisation a hechsha, a Jewish seal of approval that will make any future Oxfam action against Israel look kosher.

It won’t surprise regular readers to hear that I side with those who favour engagement over non-engagement. As Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould — widely recognised as someone who is a good friend to both British Jewry and Israel — has put it: “If the Jewish community only speaks to people who agree with them, they’ll never win the argument.” I think he’s right.

Indeed, what Gould says has always been true — but that truth is about to gain added urgency. On Tuesday Israel is set to elect what many believe will be the most right-wing government in the Jewish state’s history. That’s not just the view of usual suspect lefties: David Horovitz, founder editor of the Times of Israel, has warned that “a different Israel” will emerge after January 22, one in which: “The right has become the far-right.”

What he and other analysts chiefly have in mind is the surging Jewish Home party, led by the star of this election season, Naftali Bennett. Bennett is not a settler, but is the settlers’ champion. He advocates the immediate annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank and has ruled out a Palestinian state, saying it would be “a disaster for the next 200 years”.

His party will put into the Knesset not one but two residents of Hebron, the hardest of hard-core settlements. Bennett has a modern, hi-tech image but occasionally the mask slips. In a TV debate with a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Knesset, he said: “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here.”

You might expect the racism to be less overt inside Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party, but if anything it is even more naked. Consider Moshe Feiglin, high up on his party list, who in 2004 said: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers…The Arab destroys everything he touches.”

Here’s the point. Few of those opposed to the Board-Oxfam project claim that Oxfam rejects Israel’s right to exist (difficult since Oxfam is committed to the two state solution). Rather, they oppose Oxfam because Oxfam has opposed some Israeli government policy. But there are about to be many, many people opposed to the Israeli government. Take Feiglin: he’s about to be an MK for Israel’s main governing party, but he was banned from entry to the UK in 2008.

If we decide that we can only have contact with those who support the Israeli government — as some are, in effect, demanding — we are about to become very lonely. For we will find that we have no one to talk to but ourselves.

Britain can’t pick and choose on Europe – we’re either in, or we’re out | Jonathan Freedland

The EU does need reform but the Eurosceptics' tactics will merely lead to an exit. Labour now has the chance to seize the agenda

It's telling that it took an intervention by an American to jolt Britain out of the insularity of its debate on Europe. Until Philip Gordon, the state department's top official on Europe, came to London with an unusually pointed message for Britain (summary: stay in the EU or kiss goodbye to the special relationship) the public conversation about Britain's European destiny had gazed only inward.

Much of it had barely looked beyond Westminster, let alone to the rest of the world. It had dwelled chiefly on David Cameron's political plight as he prepares to deliver a speech on 22 January that was promised more than six months ago, and as he confronts an army of restless better-off-outers both inside and outside the Tory tent, whether on the backbenches or in Nigel Farage's surging Ukip army. At its most expansive, it had wrestled with what a British exit, or "Brexit", might mean for the future prospects of these islands. But it had barely considered the impact of such a move on our neighbours, allies and friends.

Gordon snapped us out of that reverie. "We want to see a strong British voice in [the] European Union," he said. "That is in the American interest." His intervention wrongfooted the Euro-leavers somewhat. Central to their creed is the notion that waiting to embrace a post-Brexit Britain is our natural home, the Anglosphere, with the US at its core. Turn our back on the continentals and we'll be hugged instead by our English-speaking cousins over there. Yet now the cousins are telling us we're worth more to them inside the club of 27 than we are as little old England.

The Atlanticist Eurosceptics rushed to suggest Gordon was merely articulating a partisan Obama view rather than an enduring US strategic interest. But that's nonsense. The Americans have wanted Europeans, including the Brits, to speak with a single voice ever since Henry Kissinger quipped that it would be handy, when he sought the European view, if he could dial just one phone number.

The US is not the only big player to grow cold at the prospect of a go-it-alone Britain. The story is told of Gordon Brown dining in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, who asked a pointed question: "The future is continental – China, America, Europe – which continent will Britain be with?" Brown offered the New Labour bromide about Britain as a bridge between the US and EU, but Wen Jiabao made the point again: the future is continental, Britain would have to choose.

Not that it needs a Chinese premier or senior US official to explain that Britain will be weaker outside the EU. Our European partners say the same thing to whoever will listen. The message was repeated again this week by a key ally of Angela Merkel, who warned Britain not to "blackmail" fellow EU members – just as George Osborne did precisely that, threatening to walk if Brussels doesn't change to accommodate London. Such a warning from Germany matters and not only because it is now, even if reluctantly, Europe's leading power. Cameron needs to be especially attentive because he is relying on Merkel to ensure Britain gets what it wants, calculating that Berlin will do whatever it takes to keep Britain on board, as a liberal, free trade counterweight to dirigiste, protectionist France.

All of which should make him alarmed by the noises coming out of Germany. Georg Boomgaarden, German ambassador to London, has read the reports that Cameron will demand a series of powers be "repatriated" as Britain's condition for staying in the EU, and shakes his head. It's one thing for Britain to opt out of the euro or the Schengen agreement on open borders – projects that were always optional – but anything that touches on the single market is, for him, entirely different. The single market is a constant, rolling compromise. No country can simply keep the bits they like, rejecting those they don't. "Britain can't do a pick and choose. The rest of the EU won't tolerate it," the ambassador told me. "The Eurosceptic wants to take all the positives, and leave everyone else to take the disadvantages. You can't do that. If you pick and choose you blow up the single market."

If Cameron reckons he will be able on Tuesday week to offer the prospect of a future referendum that would pit a new EU arrangement, with key powers returned to London, against withdrawal, then the ambassador suggests he think again. "Eurosceptics believe the choice is pick and choose or out, but this is really a choice between out and out."

That need not translate into resigned acceptance that we're stuck with the status quo. It's quite clear there has to be serious change in the way the EU works, especially if the eurozone and non-eurozone settle into two permanent tiers. New rules will have to apply, perhaps even formally establishing what was once feared: a fast lane and a slow lane. But seeking such an EU-wide restructuring is very different to what Cameron's itchiest colleagues have in mind. It's the difference between a club of 27 reforming its rulebook and one member, hovering by the door, reading out a list of demands and threatening to storm out if he doesn't get his way.

This is an opportunity for Labour, whose top table is currently divided between those who flirt with the idea of outflanking Cameron on the Eurosceptic right and those who believe Labour should unashamedly declare that Britain's future is in the EU. A message of "reform, not exit" might chime well with the electorate. Extensive polling suggests that most Britons prefer continued membership of a looser, reformed EU over going it alone and that the British public's Euroscepticism is soft and shallow. Intriguingly, Lord Ashcroft's survey of more than 20,000 voters found that "the Ukip threat is not about Europe" – that jobs, welfare and immigration mattered to actual and potential Ukip voters far more than the EU.

The trouble for Cameron is that the noisiest, Euro-loathing Tories – including nine cabinet ministers, according to the Spectator – won't let him follow the reasonable path of broad reform. They will insist he seeks a narrow repatriation of powers to Britain which he can never get. As Labour's shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, puts it: "The gap between the minimum the Tories will demand and the maximum the EU could give is unbridgeable."

It would all be so much simpler if this were just a domestic problem, one confined to the shores of Britain and the Conservative party. But that's the trouble with Europe. It involves those damned Europeans.

Twitter: @j_freedland

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What U.S. Jews Don’t Get About European Anti-Semitism

My inbox is giving me a queasy sensation of déjà vu. It’s filling up with anguished claims that British schools are banning the teaching of Hebrew. As it happens, no such thing has occurred. The government has simply proposed that elementary schools be required to teach one of a list of seven officially recommended languages: French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, ancient Latin, or Greek. Hebrew is no more about to be banned than is Arabic or Russian. Jewish schools will still be able to teach Hebrew. It’s just that, if the move goes ahead, they’ll also have to teach French, Spanish, or one of the other approved seven languages.


Israel’s shift to the right will alienate those it needs most | Jonathan Freedland

Ahead of the Israeli elections, ultra-ultra-nationalists are surging in the polls. But diaspora Jews might recoil from their views

In a week when the dead number 60,000 in Syria – a figure considered an underestimate by the UN body that produced it – it can seem like displacement activity to speak of any other topic in the region. It is Syria, surely, that matters most, a slaughter whose scale shames a world that does so little to stop it.

And yet there are other conflicts in the Middle East that cannot be ignored. Not one of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 or 1982 left a death toll of even half the current Syrian number, but Israel-Palestine still matters – to Israelis and Palestinians most of all, but also to the many millions around the world who feel bound up in their fate.

For now the focus is on the Israeli elections of 22 January. The polls suggest that a government ranked as one of the most rightwing in Israel's history is set to be replaced by one even further to the right. Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud – now merged with the party headed by his ultra-nationalist former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman – is losing ground to the ultra-ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party. Even the more modest projections suggest Jewish Home will emerge as the third-largest party, one that Netanyahu will find very hard to exclude from his next coalition.

And what kind of outfit is Jewish Home? Take a look at its leader, Naftali Bennett, born of American parents and a champion of the West Bank settlers. He demands immediate annexation by Israel of 60% of the West Bank. In a 2010 TV debate he dismissed a Palestinian member of the Knesset in these terms: "When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here… We were here long before you."

Even if Bennett is kept out of coalition, Netanyahu will still head a more rightist government. The Likud's few remaining moderates were purged in recent internal elections, replaced by hardliners such as Moshe Feiglin. Here's what he told a reporter from the New Yorker: "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers … The Arab destroys everything he touches." Not for nothing was Feiglin banned from entry to the UK in 2008.

Yet far from being ostracised, such overt racists are set to gain new seats at Israel's ruling table. The centre of gravity is about to shift so far rightward that Netanyahu and even Lieberman will look moderate by comparison. Why is this happening? The conventional explanation for recent rightwing electoral success has been a loss of faith by the Israeli public in the peace platform that once defined the left. The failure of the Camp David talks of 2000 and the response to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – a steady stream of Hamas rockets aimed at Israeli towns – discredited the very idea of land for peace. "We give them land, they give us war," was the bitter Israeli joke and the public resolved long ago that it won't be fooled again.

But that explanation does not fully account for the current lurch to what was once deemed the lunatic fringe. Instead, the blame can be shared evenly between the Israeli centre-left, Palestinian leaders and the international community. Ever since Yitzhak Rabin was murdered nearly 20 years ago, Israel's centre-left has failed to advance a vision of a modern, democratic country – one that would properly acknowledge and integrate those Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders and no longer run the lives of those Palestinians living outside them, in the occupied territories. The Israeli Labour party typifies the problem, currently led by someone who prefers not to discuss the Palestinian question at all, focusing on "domestic issues." The centre-left created a vacuum and the nationalist right filled it.

As for the Palestinians, Daniel Levy, director for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggests they have failed to play an ANC-style role, one that would "challenge the mainstream Israeli discourse". President Mahmoud Abbas makes threats of diminishing credibility – to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, for example – while Hamas's militancy succeeds only in closing Israeli ranks (even if its military wing has just taken the intriguing step of tweeting in Hebrew). Neither approach makes the Israeli public pause and think again. Meanwhile, the international community, administering only the rarest slap on the wrist, has made the status quo cost-free. Israeli voters can put Bennett or Feiglin into government without fearing any consequence. It's 20 years since the US last imposed any real price on settlement activity, with Bush the elder's threat to withdraw loan guarantees – a threat, incidentally, which prompted the Israeli electorate to eject the Likud and install Rabin as PM.

So we ought to brace ourselves for an ultra-right government, one divided between those pushing for immediate annexation and those who seek a less overt entrenchment of the status quo. The already moribund two-state solution will be all but buried.

But it's a new year and we can't afford to be downcast. There are two shafts of light to be spotted in this gloom. First, Levy welcomes what he believes will be a clarifying kind of polarisation: "The layers of camouflage will now be removed." The right will be exposed, the moderate fig-leaves of the past stripped away. Meanwhile, the centre-left will include a greater number of robust liberals and genuine democrats, the ex-Likudniks of the now-defunct Kadima party having mostly departed. Instead of clustering around an artificial middle ground, Israeli politics will present a clear left-right choice.

Second is the impact of all this on the Jewish diaspora, especially in the US. The American Jewish attachment to Israel is profound, but US Jews also tend to be liberal with a strong sense of social justice. They will find Feiglin and Bennett hard to stomach. The Haaretz blogger who asked, "Will 2013 be the year American Jews secede from Israel?" may have got ahead of himself. Diaspora Jews will not break from Israel, but they will surely recoil from this one, albeit dominant, Israeli political camp. Feiglin's Israel is not the Israel their parents taught them to love.

A shift is already visible, with pro-Israel columnists Tom Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg both calling on President Obama to go ahead and nominate Chuck Hagel – the former senator unafraid to criticise Israel – as defence secretary, arguing that it's time Washington told Jerusalem a few home truths.

That Haaretz writer rightly declared that "American support, anchored by US Jewry, is the strategic asset which makes all other strategic assets possible". But that support has chiefly been for the ideal of a democratic, peace-seeking Israel. If Israelis vote for those who display contempt for both peace and democracy, for those set on the path of Israeli self-destruction, they will one day find that essential bedrock of support cracking beneath their feet.

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