WASHINGTON, D.C. — By the time the sun sets on Inauguration Day, Barack Obama will have sworn the oath of office four times — more than almost any other president.
Obama became president in front of a record-breaking crowd of about 2 million outside the U.S. Capitol in 2009. But because Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed a line, Obama and Roberts met in the White House Map Room the next day to redo the oath. Roberts and Obama will once again meet at a more intimate swearing-in at the start of Obama’s second term. This time, though, the calendar is to blame.
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1933, declared that the president’s term of office begins on Jan. 20. Because it falls on a Sunday in 2013, Obama will swear the oath that day followed by the public, ceremonial event on Monday.
Since the first Jan. 20 inauguration in 1937, that date has fallen seven times on a Sunday, said Robert Watson, a presidential scholar and professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Ceremony for show
Many Americans may not realize that the Jan. 21 inauguration is essentially for show, and that Obama will already have been sworn in as president.
“In the big scheme of things, this kind of thing is not going to be remembered, except as a piece of historical trivia or curiosity,” said professor Daniel Klinghard, of the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “The thing that will be remembered is this speech.”
History watchers may be talking decades later, however, about the intertwined relationship of Roberts and Obama.
The two share a fractious connection, which started long before the mistake at the 2009 inauguration. Some conspiracy theorists claimed it was an attempt to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.
In 2005, then-Sen. Obama refused to support Robert’s confirmation to the high court. Little did Obama know that the chief justice would later salvage his signature legislative achievement, in the closely watched Affordable Care Act case decided last year.
While the 2008 election called to mind a brief moment of hope among some Americans that Obama could unite the country against growing partisanship, it was also a period in which a fringe of the American public questioned whether Obama had a legitimate claim on the Oval Office.
Head off controversy
“Obama worried and his attorneys worried that because there was so much conspiracy and hate toward Obama — ‘He wasn’t born in the (United States), he’s not a citizen, he’s a Muslim’ — they decide that this could be an issue as to whether he could be a legitimate president because he did not take the technical oath because Roberts read it wrong,” Watson said.
At the time, the notion that a few misspoken words could call into question the presidency was not only a fringe thought.
After the swearing-in, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said on air: “We’re wondering here whether or not Barack Obama in fact is the president of the United States. They had a kind of garbled oath. It’s just conceivable that this will end up going to the courts.”
The White House first declared no need for a do-over. The mistake was oh so slight.
Obama interrupted Roberts midway through the opening line, in which the president repeats his name and solemnly swears. That seemed to throw off Roberts. He then misplaced the word “faithfully.”
Instead of saying “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” Roberts placed “faithfully” at the end of that phrase. Roberts tried to correct himself, but Obama repeated it in the same wrong order. News accounts said Roberts did not have a copy of the oath on hand.
The next day Roberts and Obama met before a few reporters for a second try. A White House photograph was later released.
White House Counsel Greg Craig said Roberts administered the oath a second time because the wording of the oath appears in the Constitution and “out of the abundance of caution.”
In past years when the Jan. 20 date has dictated an oath-taking before the major public event, they have typically been small affairs, Watson said. But this time it will be open to the press.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee privately indicated to reporters that the event could be closed, with an official photograph supplied to press by White House photographer Pete Souza, the website Politico reported. After an outcry from the press corps, the committee announced that the press may attend the ceremony.
So Roberts and Obama may want to brush up on the oath. But if, in fact, someone does make a mistake, they’ve already got a do-over scheduled. This time in front of millions of Americans who will watch in-person, on the Web and on television.
OBAMA, ROBERTS: ROCKY RELATIONSHIP
2005: Then-Sen. Barack Obama refuses to support John Roberts’ appointment to the Supreme Court, suggesting that Roberts might lack empathy.
2009: Obama is sworn in by Roberts — the first time a justice has sworn in a president who voted against him.
2010: Obama admonishes Roberts court as they sit right in front of him at the Capitol during the State of the Union address over its ruling on the Citizens United campaign finance case. Some called Obama’s dressing down a breach in protocol.
2012: Roberts’ swing vote saves the Affordable Care Act from being declared completely unconstitutional.