Taking Oaths Seriously

Posted on Categories Federal Law & Legal System, Political Processes & Rhetoric, President & Executive Branch


Most presidents take the oath of office twice in their lives only if reelected.  Yesterday night, Barack Obama took the oath – again –  from Chief Justice John Roberts because of the miscues during the inauguration ceremony the day before.  The media’s take, thus far, is to poke fun at what is called the “do over,” the “flub heard around the world,” (MSNBC) and the “oaf of office” (courtesy of the New York Post).  Yet at the same time, we are assured that Obama’s first oath was essentially good enough or perhaps even unnecessary for him to assume the presidency because the new term began at noon on January 20, 2009 regardless.  Yale’s Akhil Amar obligingly opined on NBC that the second oath was akin to “wearing both a belt and suspenders.” 

Personally, I’d find it somewhat unsettling if Obama began wearing a belt along with suspenders, so I think it is worth our time to take seriously an event that obviously the President and the Chief Justice took quite seriously.   I am very much impressed that Obama and Roberts thought the oath significant enough to warrant the second ceremony.  Clearly it was not done to deflect the embarrassment of the day before; indeed, the second oath only underscored their abject failure to recite correctly the 35 word oath – hardly a pas de deux.  I also doubt that either Obama or Roberts fretted about the legality of the inauguration ceremony; the second oath was not intended to avoid crack pot law suits.  

Rather, the message sent by both the Chief Justice and the President is that both men so value the words of the oath and their official responsibilities that they are willing to endure a fresh round of chiding and gentle ridicule.   Essentially, the second duet acknowledged the mistake made by two very smart, well-educated men the day before when, apparently, their nerves and wits partially failed them before hundreds of millions of people worldwide.  Imagine that.   Hindsight suggests that they should have just started over on inauguration day, prefaced perhaps with some gentle humor that would have captured this quite human undertaking.  That did not happen.  But the second oath, administered by the robed Chief Justice in comparative calm and privacy a day later, tells us that they take such matters seriously, that they are willing to acknowledge mistakes and rectify them.  It coincided nicely with Obama’s call to “restore the vital trust between people and their government” and to inaugurate “a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties[.]”  

Obama’s second oath is, one hopes, a sign that he will candidly acknowledge and correct the missteps and mistakes that will inevitably occur as he “faithfully execute[s]” the sworn duties of his office while acting to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”   The oath is a small duty, but Obama’s attention to it augers well that he will closely attend to his more daunting responsibilities.

Update:  Jessica Slavin mistakenly took initial credit for this wonderful post when she posted it on behalf of Professor Dan Blinka this morning.  Sorry Dan!

2 thoughts on “Taking Oaths Seriously”

  1. Thank you for the wonderful post. On one of the listservs to which I belong, there were a number of posts, the first of which appeared almost immediately after the swearing in concluded, that picked at the Chief Justice’s placement (and President Obama’s recitation) of the word “faithfully” in the oath. The oath says, “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States.” The way that sentence came out on Tuesday was “execute the Office of the President of the United States faithfully.” Some called the modifier misplaced, and others debated whether the placement made a difference in meaning. Consider the title to this post: Taking Oaths Seriously. Were we to switch around the adverb, we would have Seriously Taking Oaths, a meaning I’m sure Professor Blinka does not intend. In the instance of the inaugural oath, from a writing teacher’s perspective, the placement of “faithfully” makes little difference; the meaning is clear in either case. “Faithfully” modifies “executes.” However, the point Professor Blinka makes here is the more important one: that both men value those words enough to get them just right, even if it means a “do over.” It’s a lesson that many of us heard as children: a job worth doing is worth doing well. Both Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama must think so, too.

  2. Whether or not we should take formal oaths seriously was the central question in the Clinton impeachment.

    President Clinton clearly lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Given the personal and relatively minor nature of the “offense,” the issue came down to how seriously we should take the fact that the president had sworn to tell the truth but hadn’t.

    The theory of the Clinton impeachment was that the oath itself was such an important feature of constitutional government that any breach of an oath was grounds for dismissal. The counterargument was that a breach of oath for purposes of denying embarassing details from one’s personal life was not that big a deal.

    Republicans bought the former argument; most Democrats, the latter. Partisanship may have been a factor.

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