The Constitutional Oath

You can tell that President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts were anxious to get the presidential oath of office right this time around.

The one-minute ceremony was broadcast yesterday on C-SPAN, a few minutes before noon, Eastern time.

 

The Constitution says that a president shall take a prescribed "oath or affirmation" before entering "on the execution of his office," so there are good legal reasons to perform the oath not only correctly but also in a timely way.

The ceremony yesterday was timely, even arguably a few minutes premature. The Constitution, as amended by the Twentieth Amendment, says that a president's term "shall end at noon on the 20th day of January."

Here's the text of the oath from the US Constitution:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States."

The President and the Chief Justice flubbed it in 2008 by misplacing the adjective "faithfully." As I recall, the Chief Justice asked then Senator Obama to repeat that he would execute the office of president of the United States faithfully. The phrasing rang false.

HandshakeBut yesterday the pair again improvised, if insignificantly, on the Constitutional text.

First, the Chief Justice asked the President to state his name, after the first person pronoun. Second, the Chief Justice prompted the President to end the oath with the phrase "so help me God." These emendations sound okay because they are traditional. Should any strict constitutionalist president in the future drop them, she will take a lot of guff.

As in 2008, the Chief Justice prompted the President to state the last phrase by expressing it first in the form of a question addressed in the second person: "so help you God?" Why not? The words aren't Constitutional at that point, anyway. But to state the phrase as people expect to hear it, the President at that point has to abandon the Chief Justice's instructions to "repeat after me."


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