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Oath in private for Obama

- Five-minute ritual on Sunday, festivities a day later
Obama smiles as Michelle speaks at an event in Washington on Saturday as part of the presidential inauguration. (AFP)

Washington, Jan. 19: First, the wedding within the fortress of the family estate, virtually in private. Then the receptions to follow a day later for invited guests, the “establishment” and the interested public.

That will be the imagery conjured up here as Barack Obama is sworn in as US President for a new four-year term at noon on Sunday in the privacy of a White House parlour in the presence of only his family.

The traditional celebrations in public will begin 24 hours later on Monday.

Earlier, also on Sunday, about four hours before Obama is sworn in, Vice-President Joe Biden will be similarly inaugurated separately at a private ceremony at the Naval Observatory here which serves as the vice-presidential residence.

Other than their immediate families, only one person will be officially present at each of these two inaugurations: US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to administer the oath of office to Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to do a similar ritual for Biden.

Media coverage of the start of the new presidential and vice-presidential terms on Sunday will be severely restricted. A small media pool has been sanctioned and a single television camera will send out images of the ceremony to the world outside the White House and the Naval Observatory.

The curious proceedings that involve two oaths of office — one in private and the other before designated officials such as senators, members of the House of Representatives, the diplomatic corps and the public — are reminiscent of Indian American weddings.

Many Indian Americans, especially the well-heeled, organise two weddings for their children: one in the US, usually western style, and then a traditional ethnic ceremony later in India, often according to native religious rites.

When Obama attends two inaugurations of his new presidential term, his destiny will converge with seven of his predecessors who had to do the same.

This quirk in the American presidential cycle is the result of the 20th amendment to the US Constitution, which requires that “the terms of the President and Vice-President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January”.

Their successors must, therefore, take the oath of office by noon on January 20 to avoid a legal vacuum in power.

This year, the 20th day of January falls on a Sunday. For seven other Presidents in history, too, the constitutionally mandated inauguration day was on a Sunday. They included Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and Ronald Reagan in 1985 as well as Woodrow Wilson in 1917.

Courts and public institutions, which have to ratify the start of a new presidential term, are closed on Sundays and there has been resistance to making an exception and keeping them open even for someone as important as the President.

Besides, church visits on Sundays are sacrosanct in the US and a presidential inauguration with public participation is bound to disrupt the religious duty or vice versa. Hence the idea of a private swearing-in as due under law on January 20 and public festivities a day later if the official inauguration falls on a Sunday.

There is some irony that officially, the most powerful public official in the world will assume office and begin a new term in a ritual that will take no more than five minutes. Chief Justice Roberts will merely read out the presidential oath and Obama will repeat it. End of proceedings. No speeches. No statements. Nothing. It will be in marked contrast to the pomp of a presidential parade, a speech that sets out the priorities of Obama’s new term and several balls and other celebrations, the following day.

The parlour where Obama will start his new term tomorrow is the “Blue Room” which has been made familiar through television images to world audiences as the oval-shaped home of the White House Christmas tree every year. It is part of the President’s residential quarters at the White House.

It is called the Blue Room because of the colour of its simple wallpaper and furniture upholstery. It has windows that look out to the Washington Monument, the obelisk that will remind Obama of the first American President, George Washington, as he is sworn in tomorrow.