Imperfect Oaths, the Primed President, and an Abundance of Constitutional Caution

Peabody, Bruce | June 14, 2009

Presidential inaugurations frequently invite widespread civic celebration, the broad rhetoric of an incoming Chief Executive, and traditions stretching back for decades and even centuries. The inaugural ceremonies of January 20, 2009 offered all this and something more: a set of important constitutional puzzles radiating from Barack Obama’s imperfect recitation of his oath of office. At 12:04 p.m., Mr. Obama attempted to fulfill the Constitution’s requirement that each President take a prescribed thirty-five word oath “[b]efore he enter on the Execution of his Office . . . .” During the recitation, Chief Justice John Roberts (who was administering the oath) prompted Obama with both an incorrect word and several improper word sequences. At the end of their verbal exchange, Obama had uttered an inexact version of the presidential oath, including a pledge to execute “the office of President of the United States faithfully” rather than promising to “faithfully execute” that office. The errors in the oath-taking prompted immediate and widespread speculation and commentary: did problems with the administration and recitation of the presidential oath somehow render it invalid? If so, had Obama failed to become President, perhaps leaving us with some other Chief Executive, or even no President at all?