Obama's Changing Oath of Office

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By Zara Kessler

Barack Obama is no stranger to the presidential oath of office. On Inauguration Day in 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the words a bit -- prompting Obama to do the same -- so they did a retake a day later. And don't worry that Obama wrestled with the word "States" today: He was actually sworn in yesterday, on the date mandated by the Constitution.

What's more important than the number of times Obama has recited the oath is the way that he characterized it in his inaugural speeches.

In 2009, Obama spoke of the oath at the beginning of his remarks:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.

Four years ago, Obama spoke of his oath as the solidification of his place in a line of national leaders and as a test for the state of the nation. The words remain the same: All that changes is the person uttering them and the circumstances in which he (or maybe one day, she) finds himself.

Today, Obama saved his meditation on the oath for the end of his speech:

My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.  And we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service.  But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty or an immigrant realizes her dream.  My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride. They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope.  You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.

The second time around, Obama insisted that all Washington politicians and soldiers and U.S. citizens take his oath with him. He asked that the words test not the strength of the country's economy or place in the world but rather the moral character of its people.

In doing so, he pointed to a larger contrast between his two speeches. Today Obama said: It's not about the president anymore. He spoke not of himself, of how "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath" but of the day when "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American." He brought gay rights and climate change onto the national stage in unprecedented -- and unforeseen -- ways.

And Obama cut down his remarks by about 300 words, as though aware that time is running out.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

-0- Jan/21/2013 21:48 GMT