Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Swearing In Public: Obama and Roberts In The Spotlight

As wonderfully described by NPR in advance of the Inauguration, the oath administered to incoming Presidents is a carefully-crafted work as old as the Constitution itself.  The Oath, administered by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, has stood unchanged (there's some debate as to who added "so help me God" to the end, and some folks still grouse about that practice) ... until Tuesday.  

Sort of.

President Obama -- having no doubt practiced so he had his rhythm right, which may explain why he began speaking over Chief Justice Roberts while Roberts was still saying "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear" -- knew exactly what he wanted to sound like.  There's been a little debate who is to blame in botching the Oath by putting the word "faithfully" in the wrong place, and how bad a gaffe was suffered in the ensuing moments.  What we bargain for when we elect a President is to hear this in advance:
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.
United States Constitution, Art. II §1
What we got was Roberts starting thusly: "I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear --" but Obama, hearing the pause after "Obama" and before "do solemnly swear" as an invitation to begin repeating after Roberts, began speaking over Roberts.  And I think it's there that Roberts got flustered and dropped "faithfully" from his next recital.  There's no question Roberts missed it -- everyone has a tape and you can follow the links above, too -- but that's just where the fun begins.

Obama, just having learned a lesson about dancing with a new partner in public (they might have thought to practice together in advance, no?), followed where he was led.  He continued to repeat what Roberts said ... until he hit the point Roberts had dropped the word "faithfully".  Obama's pause seemed like it might be an invitation for Roberts to try again, but in light of subsequent events was likely an awkward what do I do pause.  For when Roberts repeated it for Obama with the word faithfully in the right place (forgetting this time, I think, the word "execute" -- this wasn't getting much better, but thank Goodness it's short, right?), Obama repeated the oath as originally recited to him, with faithfully at the end of the clause rather than next to the verb.

(Now, some nutballs will seize on this to say Obama isn't the President until he says it right.  Whatever effect Article II Section 1's oath requirement might have had before the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment may be an interesting academic exercise to argue, but the Constitution as it now stands is clear.  The incoming president's term begins at noon on January 20 following the election.  Period.)

NPR had a nice comment on this:  each trying politely to accommodate the other showed the world what good manners were possible even among adversaries (Roberts received Obama's "no" vote during Roberts' confirmation to his lifelong office).  NPR's take was that both men ended up trying to follow the other when it became clear they weren't working well together.

The good news is that the next time this oath is administered, whomever stands before Roberts will be forewarned not to step on Roberts' lines, and Roberts will have had the practice not to botch it.

The Jaded Consumer thus argues that the future is better secured by small failures that give notice of the need for remedy.  Further, we have a little window into Obama and his Chief Justice before the term gets underway.  We will have years to pick apart genuine policy gripes and judgment lapses either may commit.  But here, at the outset, we have one reassurance that should soften the blow of what must inevitably come later:

Their hearts were in the right place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said.