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How a US Presidential Inauguration Works

All you need to swear in a new president, now that the electoral votes have been counted, is for Biden to say these words, which are written in the Constitution, at noon on January 20...

Posted: Jan 19, 2021 10:12 PM
Updated: Jan 19, 2021 10:14 PM

The invitations have been scaled back by the pandemic and the security has been heightened by the insurrection, but Joe Biden's inauguration as the 46th president of the United States will still have plenty of pomp.

The National Mall has been shut down to keep people away, so we will all be spared another comparison of crowd sizes, especially since Donald Trump's Twitter handle has been turned off. The threat of violent protests from election-denying Trump supporters and the presence of National Guard troops will keep anyone from forgetting Trump's turbulent leadership, or lack thereof.

Anyway, the soon-to-be former President will have already fled to Florida rather than stay in Washington to watch his successor take the oath of office. Instead of inaugural balls, there will be a TV special hosted by Tom Hanks.

It will be unusual, but it will still be an inauguration.

What's actually required to make someone president?

None of the pageantry -- inaugural balls, inaugural parades, inaugural luncheons -- is laid out in the Constitution.

All you need to swear in a new president, now that the electoral votes have been counted, is for Biden to say these words, which are written in the Constitution, at noon on January 20:

"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."

Who swears in the new president?

Usually the chief justice of the US Supreme Court administers the oath, but that's a custom, not a requirement. If the chief justice isn't available, it can be another judge. Calvin Coolidge's dad, a justice of the peace, gave his son the oath in the family living room in Vermont after Warren G. Harding's death. The only woman to deliver the oath of office to a president was Sarah Hughes, a federal district judge in Texas, who was called onto Air Force One after JFK's assassination to make LBJ president.

Does the president have to put his hand on a Bible?

Most presidents have employed Bibles. Obama used two at the same time! But that's a custom. Theodore Roosevelt didn't use one.

Is Biden required to give an inaugural address?

There's not technically any need for an inaugural address, although every elected president has given one. Some are short (George Washington's second was 135 words) and some are long (William Henry Harrison's was more than 8,000 words and the lore is he caught cold while giving it and died of pneumonia a month later). It's a valuable custom for a new president to use the address to lay out his (or, in the future, her) agenda and move on from what may have been a bruising campaign.

What were some of the best inaugural addresses?

Abraham Lincoln, after states seceded due to his election, tried to keep the nation together at his first inaugural. At his second, after the bloody Civil War, and with his soon-to-be assassin in the audience, he tried to sew it back up, with "malice toward none and charity for all."

Teddy Roosevelt talked about the importance of American democracy not just for Americans, but for mankind.

FDR said the only thing Americans had to fear was "fear itself."

JFK said you should be asking what you could do for your country.

And Ronald Reagan, conversely, said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Trump used his inaugural address to talk about how he'd end "American carnage," but since Capitol Police recently had to retake the Hill from a riotous mob of Trump-supporting election deniers, you've got to assume he failed.

What will Biden say?

Pay special attention to how Biden references his predecessor, soon to face an impeachment trial, during his inaugural address.

What's different this year?

A lot.

Biden had originally planned to make a statement by arriving in Washington by Amtrak from Wilmington, Delaware, where the train station bears his name -- a testament to the days when he was a senator and used to make the round-trip home to be with his kids. That was called off.

Normally, members of Congress get a raft of tickets to distribute at will. This year they each get a +1. The public is being encouraged to stay away and the National Mall will be shut down. There will be no public parade from the Capitol to the White House, but instead a virtual parade bringing in people from around the country.

The inaugural balls -- usually there are multiple and the new president makes a short appearance at several -- will be replaced by a produced TV show featuring stars like Hanks along with Justin Timberlake. This will feel very much like the Covid inauguration.

Who will be at the actual inauguration ceremony?

All the normal VIPs, incoming and outgoing Cabinet members, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices are likely to attend, as is outgoing Vice President Mike Pence. Trump will not. It's rare, but not unheard of, for a president to skip the transfer of power.

Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga will add some show-biz glitz to the ceremony, which will still take place at the West Front of the US Capitol, looking out on an empty Mall, a show of defiance to the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, maybe. But also a reminder that this is a very singular beginning to a new administration. Read more.

Has the city ever been on lockdown during an inauguration?

Andrew Johnson was sworn in after Lincoln's death and as John Wilkes Booth was being pursued. At the time, according to The New York Times that day, travel out of the city was restricted.

Has there ever been such a muted inauguration?

There's precedent for pared-back inauguration ceremonies, even for an elected president. FDR took his fourth oath of office -- something now forbidden by the 22nd Amendment, which allows only two terms -- in the White House at the height of World War II.

Has an inauguration ever gotten totally out of control?

Andrew Jackson, Trump's favorite president, had to flee the White House as his supporters surged in to see him. They trashed the place.

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Just another day in paradise. Temperatures surged back into the low 70's for the first time in a week and a half and with southerly winds finally returning to the region, more warmth is on the way for the Tri-State. In fact, this evening looks nothing short of absolutely gorgeous across the area - by dinnertime we'll have fallen back down to 71°, but only as low as 58° by 10PM. So, if you have plans out and about this evening, all you may need will be a sweatshirt. We'll also remain relatively mild early Saturday morning, especially when you compare Saturday morning's anticipated low of 48° to previous mornings earlier in the week. Brrr.
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