This Monday, President Obama will be sworn in for his second term in office. While I didn’t vote for Mr. Obama during either of the past two elections, I’ll still watch with great excitement. I love a good inauguration. The ceremony provides an outward and visible symbol of all that is right with American politics. This is important in an age when we tend to focus on all that is wrong.
Here’s what I love about Presidential Inaugurations:
First, the inauguration showcases to the world that our Constitution works. The peaceful transition of power, from one man or party to another, is still something most Americans take for granted. In many places in the world, elections are merely window dressing for an entrenched and corrupt regime. A fake election is held, the ruling party wins, and then the dictator steps to the balcony to wave at all his adoring supporters, most of whom have been bussed in by the military.
At our inauguration, the victor stands as a true choice of the people. The man elected can rightfully (and constitutionally) expect that the person he challenged for power, whether an incumbent president or a challenger, will step aside. We have a long tradition of gracious losers like Romney, Carter, and the first Bush, who conceded the race – and in some cases surrendered the presidency and vacated the White House – to their opponent. Not once in our history has a president barricaded himself in the Oval Office refusing to go, or threatened to launch the missiles if his opponent didn’t back down.
We have had a few presidents who didn’t want to go, but did anyway. John Adams was so disgusted with Thomas Jefferson after the nasty election of 1800 that he left town before Jefferson showed up to be sworn in. When Jefferson arrived at the White House it was empty, with nary a good luck note or trace of its former occupants. Similarly, Harry Truman was so upset at the perceived slights by Dwight Eisenhower that he didn’t want to ride in the inaugural parade with the President-Elect. Only the sensibility and mid-western stubbornness of Bess got Harry to change his mind. And then in 2000, outgoing President Clinton gave a farewell press conference that not only went on too long, but sounded like therapy for a man who hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to be president when the clock struck twelve.
The fact that the inauguration will take place on the steps of the Capitol is likewise an important symbol. It reiterates that the legislature is the preeminent branch of government, not the executive. The president, though he gets all the media attention and the trappings of power, is really quite a powerless figure in domestic politics. Our constitution places the executive in Article Two, after the legislative branch. When the president makes the trip to Capitol Hill, it is a symbolic bow to the American People, who remain sovereign in our political system no matter what some in Washington may think. The president will address the people, not only the ones who have flown to D.C. to stand in the freezing weather to be part of history, but also all those like me watching on television. I’ve aways thought it was nice that the president stands facing West, as if to address the American People who constitute the “We” in “We the People.”
And finally, I like that the inaugurations are open, public, and outdoors. Even in this heightened age of terrorism and hi-tech violence, the fact that our president stands in the open before the American people speaks volumes about the importance of liberty and the rule of law. I’m aware that he’ll be surrounded by bullet-proof glass, armed security, counter snipers on buildings, and probably a myriad of other security measures we’ll never know about, but the symbolism of being outdoors, before the people, is important nonetheless. Can you imagine a president giving a speech from an “undisclosed location via satellite feed?” It wouldnt’ be the same, nor convey the same message.
And so maybe the days are gone when presidents could walk into a crowd of well-wishers during an inaugural address, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue shaking hands on his way back to the White House, or ride in an open-top limo waving at the crowds, but our inaugurations are an announcement to the world that in America, the rule of law works, liberty is alive, and the people remain supreme.
I hope President Obama enjoys the inauguration as much as I will.