The history behind the presidential inauguration

Barack H. Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the 44th president of the United States in 2009.

They’ll get up long before dawn, make their way the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C., stand in long lines to pass through metal detectors. And then they’ll wait, and wait, in freezing temperatures. But several thousand ticket-holders, and hundreds of thousands of others, are expected to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as President of the United States on January 21.

“We were out from 4am to 6pm,” recalls Qiana Martin, a Chicago resident who attended the 2009 inauguration. “It was amazing to see the millions of people who came. Everyone was really excited, and it didn’t matter that it was freezing cold. It’s an event that you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about.”

Barring dramatic circumstances (like the assassination of the sitting president), new presidents always take the oath of office here, in front of the Capitol, on the 20th of January (or the Monday after if the 20th is a Sunday, as is the case this year).

The presidential oath has remained the same since George Washington was sworn in as the United States’ first president. But the ceremony, which started as a small, private event, has evolved into a day-long mass spectacle.

“Mostly it’s just a big party,” explains Jonathan Krasno, a political scientist at Binghamton University in New York. “A lot of it is about the big money that goes into the presidential race. The inauguration is payback time for the donors.”

The pageantry of the inauguration symbolizes the importance of the presidency, which, of course, includes being both head of government and head of state.

“The U.S. began as a revolution, but the more we get away from our revolutionary roots, the more our presidents move towards the trappings of a monarch,” observes Barbara Perry, Senior Fellow in American politics at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “But they also like the populist air of having millions of people on the Mall.”

This year a crowd approaching the 2009 record of two million is expected to the Mall, the lawn that stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Notes Perry: “Most Americans are not monarchical, but they do view the President’s family as almost royal, and they’re patriotic.”

A Congressional committee organizes the event, which includes dozens of inaugural balls, but each president adds a personal touch. Jimmy Carter, for example, chose to walk to the White House following his inauguration, forgoing the presidential limousine. President Obama will participate on a National Day of Service on January 19, a tradition he started before his 2009 inauguration.

Elizabeth Stern, a 16-year-old in San Francisco, will watch the inauguration with special interest: she sang at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

“You could tell that the day was really special, but the people were just like tiny dots, so I had to remind myself how historic this event was,” recalls Elizabeth, a singer in the San Francisco Girls Chorus. She still feels a special connection with the inauguration: “The moment the significance of the event really hit me was when Obama walked off the stage and we heard the applause. Now, every time I hear the words ‘Inauguration of Barack Obama’ I get a smile on my face.”

Obama oath mistakes

At the 2009 inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled slightly over the words while administering the oath of office to Barack Obama. Since the President repeats the words said by the Chief Justice in the swearing-in ceremony, Obama repeated Roberts’s words with the mistakes.

A debate ensued, with some observers arguing that Obama had not been properly sworn in as President. In a slightly embarrassing move, Obama and Roberts had to repeat the official oath in a small event at the White House the following day. Their faux-pas pales in comparison with William Henry Harrison’s inauguration, where he caught pneumonia and soon died. But this time, Chief Justice Roberts has no doubt memorized his lines to perfection.


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