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Behind the scenes of Obama's swearing-in ceremony

January 20, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as first lady Michelle Obama holds the Bible.
President Obama takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice… (Larry Downing / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — In a swift and simple ceremony at the White House, President Obama was sworn in for a second term on Sunday and embarked on another four years leading a nation hobbled by a weak economy and gripped by political division.

With his family at his side and his hand on his wife’s family Bible, the 44th president began the new term on an understated note, repeating the oath of office in a private ceremony the day before a more lavish, public reenactment.

The intimate event was an adherence to tradition prompted by a quirk of the calendar. Under the Constitution, a president’s term ends at noon Jan. 20. When that date falls on a Sunday, presidents have shifted the public ceremony a day and opted for a swearing-in at the White House.

Obama stood in the Blue Room, an elegant oval parlor, next to First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administered the 35-word oath more smoothly than he did four years ago when he flubbed the phrasing. Other relatives watched but remained out of view of the television cameras. The entire event took about a minute.

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“I did it,” the president said as he hugged his family afterward.

“Good job, Dad,” 12-year-old Sasha said. “You didn’t mess up.”

The event bore little resemblance to the full display of traditional pageantry planned for Monday. Although a pared-down version of Obama’s first inauguration four years ago, the public swearing-in still is expected to draw about 800,000 to the National Mall to watch the poetry, music and oratory outside the U.S. Capitol.

The ceremony will take place on Martin Luther King Dayand will include several nods to this president’s place in history as the first African American to hold the office. Obama plans to place his hand on two Bibles, one owned by the slain civil rights leader and another used by Abraham Lincoln at his swearing-in on March 4, 1861.

In his address, the president will call for a shared search for areas of compromise. “He is going to talk about the fact that our political system doesn’t require us to resolve all of our disputes or settle all of our differences,” senior Obama political advisor David Plouffe said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But it does impel us to act where there should be, and is, common ground.”

The final hours of Obama’s first term were filled with quiet moments and personal reflection.

The president began his day at Arlington National Cemetery, where he and Vice President Joe Biden, fresh from his own swearing-in, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns under a clear-blue winter sky.

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From there, the president and first lady, infrequent churchgoers, made a visit to a historically black church, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal, the oldest A.M.E. church in the nation’s capital. Obama, who almost never discusses his own place in history, sat in the pews where 119 years ago congregants listened to one of Frederick Douglass’ last calls for racial equality.

“Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another,” the abolitionist and former slave said in the 1894 speech entitled “The Lessons of the Hour.”

On Sunday, Obama listened to a reading from Exodus — the final passages detailing the flight of Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. In his sermon, the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton urged the president to overcome obstacles and continue “forward,” echoing Obama’s reelection slogan. 

Obama’s legislative agenda faces plenty of obstacles, most notably a Republican-led House of Representatives that for two years has tried to block his attempts to use government spending to create jobs and raise taxes on the wealthy. Obama’s second-term priorities -- an overhaul of the immigration system and new gun control measures -- are facing solid opposition.

Biden took his oath of office early Sunday morning in an event that appeared lively compared to the president’s austere one -- a contrast that may reflect their personalities and political futures.

The vice president, who may be a candidate for the top job in 2016, gathered about 120 friends, family members and Democratic power players to his official residence at the Naval Observatory. The event included political strategists, labor leaders and party officials who could help him in a presidential bid. Many came early for a Catholic Mass and stayed afterward for breakfast.

“It’s an honor, it’s an honor,” Biden told Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the fourth female jurist to administer the oath for a president or vice president.

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