What Canadians need to know about the second Obama inauguration

by Colin Robertson

January 18, 2013

The American Constitution is a sacred secular document. And so, pursuant to the XXth amendment to the Constitution, at noon on Sunday, January 20th, likely in the Blue Room of the White House, President Barack Obama will place his left hand on two stacked Bibles — one used by Abraham Lincoln and the other by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Raising his right hand before Chief Justice John Roberts, he will “swear 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.” George Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the 35-word vow and few presidents have departed from this tradition.

Moments beforehand, likely at the Naval Observatory that is the vice presidential home, Vice President Joe Biden will take his oath of office from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Thus will formally begin the second Obama administration.

The Ceremony

The theme of this year’s inauguration is ‘Faith in America’s Future’. The inaugural events begun Thursday night and continue through the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend with the main events on Monday evening.

Because January 20 falls on a Sunday, the inauguration ceremony takes place Monday on the western steps of Capitol Hill. Civil servants in the District of Columbia and adjacent Maryland and Virginia suburbs get a holiday.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the president will travel by limousine from the White House to the Capitol. For the first inauguration, George Washington designed a coach of state with a military escort and an entourage of worthies including foreign emissaries.

Until 1936, the inauguration took place on March 4, originally to give the Electoral College time to meet after the election. After the long lame-duck period between Herbert Hoover’s defeat in November 1932 and Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, the Constitution was amended to set January 20 for the inauguration and January 3 for the start of the new Congress.

From the inauguration of the first Democrat president, Andrew Jackson, in 1829, the ceremony was performed on the east side of the Capitol Building, facing the Supreme Court and Library of Congress.

Ronald Reagan, with an eye for the camera, decided to move the ceremony to the west side with its splendid vista looking straight down the Mall to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It has stayed on the west side of the Capitol ever since.

In 2009, a record 1.8 million people showed up on the National Mall to watch the inauguration of the first African-American President. This year it is estimated the crowd will be 600,000 to 800,000.

The formal ceremony will begin with the U.S. Marine Band (probably playing ‘Hail to the Chief’), followed by a choir and the call to order by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, chair of the Joint Congressional Committee for the Inauguration. Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams will give the invocation, then the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir will sing. Vice President Biden will then be sworn to office, then James Taylor will sing.

Then comes the presidential oath of office, the Inaugural Address, a song from Kelly Clarkson, a poem from Richard Blanco (a tradition that began with Robert Frost reading ‘The Gift Outright’ to John F. Kennedy in 1961), then a benediction from Reverend Luis Leon, pastor of St. John’s Church of LaFayette Square, the ‘church of the presidents’ since James Madison, before Beyonce sings the national anthem concluding the official ceremony.

After the inauguration, the president, vice president and guests will go back into the Capitol Building for a lunch hosted by the Congress, a tradition that began with the first Eisenhower inaugural.

On the menu this year: steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, followed by hickory-grilled bison with red potato horseradish cake and wild huckleberry reduction and, for dessert, Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey.

The Parade

Then comes the parade — a procession of marching bands and floats that started with Thomas Jefferson’s second inaugural when he rode to the Capitol surrounded by mechanics from the Navy Yard and a military band. Teddy Roosevelt’s parade included an estimated 35,000 participants, including the Rough Riders with whom he charged up San Juan Hill.

The parade starts at the Capitol complex, down Constitution to Pennsylvania and finishes up after passing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a.k.a. the White House.

The best vantage point is from the roof of the Canadian Embassy. While working there, I watched the second Bush inaugural. Our guests included newly-elected West Virginia Governor (and now Senator) Joe Manchin, former speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator John McCain.

McCain had marched as an Annapolis midshipman in the second Eisenhower inaugural. He knows marching bands like no one I have ever met and he provided colour commentary from the balcony for nearly an hour and a half. The level of political detail was mesmerizing — why a particular band from a particular state was selected to march. It was very cold and his daughter, who lived in Toronto, came out and encouraged him to come in from the cold. He smiled and told her that he’d been in “worse situations”.

For austerity reasons, President Barack Obama is cutting back on the number of inaugural balls. There will be two official balls plus a concert honoring military families. The bigger ball, at the Washington Convention Center, is expected to draw 35,000. The entertainment will include Katy Perry, Smokey Robinson, Usher, Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, the cast of ‘Glee’ and the youth gospel choir Soul Children of Chicago.

Probably the most rambunctious celebration took place after the inauguration of Andrew Jackson when, according to a contemporary account, “the president was followed from the Capitol to the White House by a motley mob — black and white — who pressed into the mansion to see the new president of the people … They clambered upon the satin furniture with their muddy boots for a better view…”, breaking the china and taking home bits and pieces as souvenirs. As Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story observed, “I never saw such a mixture. The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant.”

There will be souvenirs aplenty, including a presidential medal, but Canadians will appreciate an inaugural toque as a practical memento.

The next morning there is a prayer service, a tradition that dates back to George Washington. Since Franklin Roosevelt it has been held at the National Cathedral where such notables as Woodrow Wilson, Cordell Hull and Helen Keller are interred.

The Speech

The Inaugural Address sets the vision for the administration.

When successful — as with Lincoln, FDR and JFK — it is a call to action with ringing phrases that become part of our dialogue. For my generation, it is John Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

The shortest inaugural speech was that of George Washington. At 135 words, he observed that: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” The longest address: 8,600 words, delivered by William Henry Harrison in 1841. He caught a cold and died of pneumonia a month later.

At 2,421 words, Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address was slightly longer than Reagan’s first inaugural, but almost 30 per cent longer than Franklin Roosevelt’s, 80 per cent longer than JFK’s and three and a half times longer than Lincoln’s second inaugural.

There is a three-part pattern to the speeches.

In time of a change in party, they begin with praise for America’s democratic commitment to peaceful and orderly transition. In time of continuity, they underline the American ability to come together after a hard-fought campaign.

The second part describes the problems facing the nation and the world and this segues into the third part — underlining the American capacity for innovation and the strength of American institutions. Americans’ ability to solve problems when they put partisanship aside is critical. As Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, “If we succeed it will not be because of what we have, but it will be because of what we are; not because of what we own, but rather because of what we believe”. Then the president will usually appeal to a Higher Power and continuing trust in God.

The first Obama speech underlined change, the theme of his successful campaign and called for a “new era of responsibility”. Having received a majority of the votes cast (the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter) and with control of both houses of Congress, it all seemed possible.

Obama talked about casting aside the old debates and spoke of a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to government. He acknowledged race but did not make it or civil rights the central theme. He took on the Bush preoccupation with security, saying, “We don’t have to choose between our safety and our ideals.” He told America’s enemies, “We will defeat you.” There was a sense of the potential for transformational change with an emphasis on unity, conversation, expertise, and knowledge.

It’s hard for a second inaugural address to capture the promise of the first. Expect some reference to freedom. It is the 150th anniversary since the Statue of Freedom was placed atop the partly constructed Capitol Dome in 1863, during the Civil War. Lincoln, the first Republican president, is one of Obama’s heroes and the Lincoln collection of speeches has furnished many presidents with quotable quotes.

During the campaign, President Obama talked about the fiscal cliff and need for tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform and, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, gun control and attention to mental health.

Don’t expect them to feature in the inaugural address. It is a vision document.

The blueprint for action comes in the State of the Union address. Speaker John Boehner has invited the president to deliver his legislative agenda before Congress on February 12th.

While Obama may no longer have the star power he enjoyed in 2009, he starts his second term with favourable ratings. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has just published a survey that places his job-approval rating at 52 per cent and his personal favorability at 59 per cent, up from the high 40s.

This is in contrast to the Republican leadership, including Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Republican Party’s image, which reached a 42 per cent favorable rating following the GOP convention, has fallen to 33 per cent.

Obama faces a much more skeptical and frustrated public than he did four years ago: only 33 per cent expect economic conditions to get better over the coming year. Although the public expects more bipartisan cooperation, only 23 per cent expect Republicans and Democrats will work together more in the coming year.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email