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In our opinion: The president's taking the oath of office is not an antiquated formality

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th US president by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in front of the Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2009.

Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images

Today, Barack Obama will be sworn into his second term as president of the United States. Addressing the constitutional requirement that his first term end at noon on Jan. 20, Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath of office in the Blue Room of the White House today before the White House press corps. The oath of office will then be administered a second time on Monday at public inauguration ceremonies that, by tradition, are not held on Sundays.

Today's swearing of the president reverses the order of what happened in 2009 when a small White House swearing ceremony was held the day after the formal inauguration. At the formal inaugural ceremony, both Roberts and Obama bungled the oath, omitting a word or two and getting some out of order. So the oath was administered a second time, word for word as spelled out in the Constitution.

To some it may seem picky to insist on what Justice Roberts called a "belt and suspenders" approach to the oath of office. But, that oath is entirely focused on constitutional rectitude. The one oath written into the Constitution, it says, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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."

Fulfilling clear constitutional provisions with precision is not an antiquated formality — it is at the core of what allows us to peacefully confer enormous power into the hands of those elected to represent us in administering and making law. Requiring the president to do this first act of each of his terms in specific accord with the clear text of the Constitution is a solemn reminder that our great national charter specifically outlines the metes and bounds of governmental power, and that specificity is important.

We congratulate Obama today as he takes on the burden and responsibility of national leadership for a second term. Through tumultuous economic times he has successfully galvanized a coalition of loyal electoral support that is willing to look beyond the immediate grim social and economic indicators with faith that, given the alternatives, Obama is the person best suited to lead the executive branch of government.

But, as the oath of office clearly instructs, a majority coalition does not provide any license to push against the limits of constitutional governance. Too many second-term presidents have been cavalier in their use of power, thereby undermining their potential for historical greatness. Too often, during his first term, Obama slipped from the optimistic oratory of his campaign into dour lecturing and scolding. Obama would be wise to remember that presidential power is greatest when it is used to persuade and lead with vision instead of threaten.

But even more troubling have been Obama's gambits of constitutional questionability. For example, he brazenly ignored the advise and consent of the Senate in the appointment of the head of the already largely unaccountable Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and members of the National Labor Relations Board, claiming his were so-called "recess appointments" (even though the Senate had not recessed). The result from that arbitrary process? The subsequent regulations enacted by these agencies through these unconsented to appointees are now tied up in litigation. We could point to other troubling instances where the Obama administration has opted to go around the standard regulatory processes (e.g., a unilateral offshore drilling moratorium) and where it has failed to properly execute the plain meaning of existing law (e.g., refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court).

Although many of these gambits have been in direct response to important constituencies in his electoral coalition, we trust that the ensuing costly litigation and multiple reversals have taught the president that the essence of effective constitutional governance is the use of clear, transparent and predictable rules applied without preference or prejudice.

As the president assumes his second term, we would not only remind him of his fundamental constitutional obligations but his prudential obligation to make governance through principled compromise work. Yes, the public has given him a high trust. But the public has also given its electoral trust to congressional representatives who have a philosophically different approach to policy. They, too, have been sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States. The president has the prerogative to question their reasons and judgment, but he should learn from his vice president that he is wrong and ineffectual when he questions their motives — especially through uninspiring public scolding.

With a second term comes an opportunity for renewal. We trust the president will see and seize that opportunity and revive his initial hopeful instincts for our nation's progress.

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