Monday, January 21, 2013

President Obama. Again.

Above is the White House video of the official swearing in ceremony for President Obama’s second term. The ceremonial swearing-in ceremony is tomorrow, which confuses some people.

Section 1 of the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution sets the time and date at which Presidential and Congressional terms begin:
The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
So, to comply with the Constitution, President Obama was sworn in at noon on Sunday, January 20th Eastern US time (6am today, January 21, New Zealand time). Vice President Biden was sworn in at a separate ceremony at the Naval Observatory. Because January 20 falls on a Sunday this year, the outdoor ceremony at the West Front of the US Capital Building will be held on Monday, January 21 US time (January 22 in New Zealand). Personally, I don’t see have any problem with the big ceremony being held on Sunday, but some Americans—well, they see things differently.

Four other presidents took private oaths when the date their office began fell on a Sunday: Rutherford B Hayes (1877), Woodrow Wilson (1917), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957) and Ronald Reagan (1985).

There’s disagreement about whether the actual oath needs to be taken at noon on January 20th, or whether the term automatically begins even if the taking of the oath is delayed—just as long as the oath is taken (the oath itself is required by Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution. Personally, I always thought that this was kind of silly and irrelevant. In any case, there’s nothing in the US Constitution requiring a re-elected president and vice president to take their oaths of office again.

What I find interesting is that the oath does not include the phrase “so help me god”. I grew up assuming it did, and I was taught that George Washington was the first president to say it. It turns out, there’s absolutely no evidence that he did, and it’s uncertain who was the first president who did say the phrase in its current form—partly because it’s unknown exactly when presidents started actually reciting the oath, rather than replying “I do” or “I swear” after the oath was read to them (the way oaths were administered, perhaps up to the 20th century, similar to the way witness are sworn in for a trial—at least, on TV…).

Similarly, no one knows how many presidents used a bible when they took their oath, something that also isn’t required by law or the US Constitution (some federal oaths do require an oath to be taken on a bible). However, we know that Theodore Roosevelt didn’t use a bible and John Quincy Adams used a law book (symbolically swearing on the Constitution). Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S Truman and Richard Nixon all used two bibles. George Washington kissed the bible after his oath as other presidents also did up until Eisenhower broke the tradition.

Neither the use of the bible nor saying “so help me god” is, strictly speaking, constitutional, since the First Amendment prohibits the US government from establishing religion. However, they’re both traditional, and as long as the Chief Justice or whoever is administering the oath (the Constitution doesn’t specify that, either) doesn’t say the phrase for the president to repeat, it’s constitutionally permissible because the president can add whatever words he or she wants to after the official oath is taken. Similarly, use of a bible (or not) is a personal choice, not a requirement.

As a firm secularist, I would prefer that “so help me god” be dropped, and I think maybe John Quincy Adams was on to something: Maybe presidents should take their oath on the document they’re swearing to “preserve, protect and defend”—it might help the to remember not to violate it. However, I actually think the best approach is to use nothing at all.

No president is actually required to swear anything: The Constitution requires presidents take the specified “Oath or Affirmation”. Franklin Pierce is the only president known to have affirmed rather than sworn, and Hebert Hoover and Richard Nixon—both Quakers—swore an oath.

There have been six oath mishaps so far, and because of that, and the fact that January 20 is a Sunday, President Obama will actually take the oath four times—which makes him tied with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected and sworn in as president four times. That’s probably my favourite bit of trivia in all this, actually.

In any case, this is what I wanted to happen this year, so I’m happy about it. And, truth be known, I’m smiling more than a little at the thought of the president’s irrational opponents on the right seeing the swearing-in two times. Twice as nice.


Roger Owen Green said...

off topic - happy birthday!

Arthur Schenck said...

Thank you! :-)

amerinz's sis said...

I think it's a smart idea to have the private swearing in first and later, the public one. The President can be sworn in privately, just in case it's dicovered that some nut case has bad intentions on the day of the public swearing in. Nut cases are in the news throughout the nation every single day. Terrible!!

President Obama will be using three Bibles this year. Today's was Michelle's family Bible. Tomorrow he will use 'the Lincoln' Bible (like last year) and also one that belonged to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cool!!!

Off topic too: Happy Birthday, Art!!!

Arthur Schenck said...

I didn't know about the bibles being used—but, is it proper to show up your brother on his birthday, hm? Just kidding—thanks! :-D