Sunday, January 20, 2013

Inaugural Day 2013

According to the 20th Amendment, today is the day the president takes the oath of office.

And Barack Obama did take that oath today. But he did so in private.

I suppose that is a fitting metaphor for a president who prefers to bypass the constitutionally prescribed system of checks and balances, but this is done with the blessing of American tradition, if not the Constituton itself.

The 20th Amendment, which was ratified 80 years ago this Wednesday, changed Inauguration Day from March 4 to Jan. 20. That was a necessary change. When the country was founded a couple of centuries ago, it made sense to have the inauguration in March. It was likely that a newly elected president would need all that time to tie up any loose ends in his private life and then travel to Washington to begin his presidency.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the trip to Washington could be long and arduous for a president—elect. But in the 20th century, with the train and the automobile already established as means of transportation and the airplane emerging as one, it wasn't necessary to wait an additional six weeks for the new president to take office.

Especially if the new president was taking office during an economic or international crisis.

The 20th Amendment doesn't mention anything about what is to be done when Inaugural Day falls on a Sunday. I presume that is a tradition dating to the 18th century that continues today.

And, although I consider myself well–versed in American history and traditions, that was a tradition of which I was unaware until 1985. That was the first time in my lifetime that Inaugural Day fell on a Sunday.

Ronald Reagan had been re–elected a couple of months earlier so he took the oath of office for the second time. Nevertheless, I began thinking of how awkward it could be for an outgoing president to have to watch an incoming president take the oath of office twice.

After all, the outgoing president must be on hand for the transfer of power — if at all possible. If the outgoing president is leaving because he has served his two terms, that is one thing, but if the outgoing president was defeated in the most recent election, that is another.

The outgoing president must greet the incoming president at the White House and then ride with him to the Capitol for the public ceremony. It's a short ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, but it could seem interminable if the two are still angry at each other over things that were said during the campaign.

And, for an outgoing president who has been rejected at the polls, it may seem like cruel and unusual punishment to have to stand by and watch his successor take the oath twice.

I don't know if that has ever happened. This is only the third time since the ratification of the 20th Amendment that Inaugural Day has fallen on a Sunday. Each time, the president being sworn in was the incumbent who had been re–elected a couple of months earlier.

If that tradition of a private ceremony on Sunday and a public one on Monday was being observed prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment, the last time that March 4 fell on a Sunday was in 1917 — when Woodrow Wilson was taking the oath of office for the second time.

I suppose I began thinking about this in 1985 because I had been a supporter of Reagan's opponent in the 1984 election, former Vice President Walter Mondale (who lost in a 49–state landslide).

Maybe I was indulging in a little wishful thinking. It's not as if Mondale was ever really in that race.

But Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, was in the 2012 race. Some people think he had the momentum until Superstorm Sandy halted it in the final week of the campaign.

If Sandy had not been a late factor in the race, Romney might have won the election.

And, today, Obama would have been forced to stand by while Romney took the oath of office — and then he would have been forced to do so again tomorrow.

Obama was spared that, however. Time will tell if that was a blessing — or a curse.

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