The four-year term of the president of the United States of America begins at noon on January 20 of the year immediately following the presidential election. The United States of America marks the occasion with an elaborate ceremony designed to mark the transfer of presidential authority from the outgoing president to the president-elect.

In accordance with tradition, the new president is sworn-in on the steps of the Capitol, in the presence of his or her family, the incoming vice-president and his or her family, the outgoing president and members of the Senate and Congress. Various aspects of the ceremony are customizable, including musical performances and readings, but the three consistent aspects are the oath of office, the inaugural address and the inaugural parade.

The oath of office

The vice-president-elect is sworn in first. The vice-presidential oath can be administered by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, though the vice-president is free to choose anyone to administer the oath, and differs slightly from the presidential oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same: that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter."

There is usually some kind of performance between the inauguration of the vice-president and of the president.

The president-elect is then asked whether he or she is ready to take the oath of office. (No one has ever gotten to this point and then said no.) The chief justice instructs the president-elect to place his or her left hand on the Bible, traditionally held by the president-elect's spouse, and raise his or her right hand.

"I, (name), do solemnly 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."
The words "so help me God" are not officially part of the oath, though they have been included at the end at every inauguration for more than 60 years and sporadically before that, depending on the president-elect's preference.

Immediately following the oath, the chief justice congratulates the new president (and usually gets to be the first person to call him or her Mr. President (or Madam President, one assumes. We'll know when it happens). The crowd goes wild and the band plays Hail to the Chief. The new president is honoured with a 21 gun salute for the first time.

The inaugural address

The new president makes his or her first address to the nation as president. Traditionally, this includes some kind of tribute to the former president for his or her service to the nation, even if the partisan differences between the two individuals are vast.

The inaugural address is typically non-partisan, focusing instead on the broader issues the new president hopes to tackle and inspiring messages including but not limited to hope and the future.

The first inaugural address was given by George Washington in 1789.

The inaugural parade

Following the inaugural address, a parade of the country's military corps parades past the new president, vice-president and their spouses in front of the Capitol.

Since Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as president for the second time in 1805, the new president is also taken from the Capitol to the White House in a parade after the inauguration.

The inaugural gala

The celebrations continue on the evening of Inauguration Day with a gala — sometimes in the form of a ball — featuring musical performances. If the gala is a ball, the president, vice-president and their spouses traditionally engage in ballroom dancing in front of an appreciative audience. Previous inauguration ceremonies included more than one ball — Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997 included 14.

Good night and good luck

Immediately following the inauguration ceremony, the president and vice-president escort their predecessors out of the Capitol. Historically, the former president and First Lady left the premises quietly without any real fanfare and proceeded to leave Washington to begin their new lives shortly thereafter. More recently, however — specifically since the inauguration of Jimmy Carter in 1977 — the outgoing president and First Lady leave the Capitol lawn by helicopter, flanked by a military honour guard, after one last wave.

Following the departure of the outgoing president and vice-president, the new president and vice-president attend a special luncheon in their honour.

History

As our man Webster notes, Inauguration Day used to be March 4. It was changed to January 20 in time for the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. If January 20 falls on a Sunday, the president takes the oath of office privately and is honoured with a public celebration the following day. Since Inauguration Day takes place in the dead of winter, it is also possible that the ceremony may be moved indoors due to extreme cold. This was the case for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985. liveforever also notes the case of William Henry Harrison, who caught pneumonia after his inauguration and died a month later.

As the text of the presidential oath of office is taken directly from the constitution, it has been used for every inauguration from George Washington onward. Incoming presidents have the option to swap out the word "swear" for the word "affirm," though this has only been done once, by Franklin Pierce.

The president of the United States does not need to take the oath in order for his or her term to technically begin, though he or she technically cannot execute the office of president unless the oath has been taken.

A president who has won a second term of office is still inaugurated on January 20 of the year immediately following the election, even though he or she is already president. Having completed his or her first four-year term, he or she must be sworn in for a second if elected to one.

Etc.

Traditionally, the president-elect and his or her family arrive at the White House prior to the inauguration and are greeted at the entrance by the outgoing president and his or her family. YouTube has footage of George and Barbara Bush greeting the Clintons on Inauguration Day in 1993. President Bush can clearly be heard saying "Welcome to your new house!" to Chelsea Clinton.

Another tradition involves the president-elect and the outgoing president traveling from the White House to Capitol Hill in the same car. The president-elect and his or her family also usually attend a morning prayer service in Washington.

The vice-president was formerly sworn in at a separate ceremony in the Senate, after which senators would also be sworn in. The move to the Capitol Hill ceremony came at the same time as the move to a January 20 inauguration.

Inauguration Day is a federal holiday, though only people in the capital region get the day off. This is apparently done to decrease traffic in the area, given the amount of heavy security required for the event.

All aspects of Inauguration Day are planned and organized by the Inauguration Committee.

The website designed to chronicle the transition between the Bush administration and the Obama administration incorrectly states that Joe Biden will be sworn in as vice-president after Barack Obama is sworn in as president. has fixed its error and now states that Joe Biden will have already taken the vice-presidential oath of office by the time Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office.

References

Inaugural Ball - Senate (cached) < http://tinyurl.com/5p7smc >
Inauguration Day Events - Senate < http://inaugural.senate.gov/history/daysevents >
Inauguration Day - Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inauguration_Day >

I'm aware of the irony of this writeup about an American tradition using primarily British spellings. I'm Canadian. It's how I spell. If it bothers anyone that much, I'll change each and every instance.

In*au`gu*ra"tion Day.

The day on which the President of the United States is inaugurated, the 4th of March in every year next after a year divisible by four.

 

© Webster 1913

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