Taking the Oath With Little Fanfare, a Day Early

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Correction Appended

WASHINGTON -- With only his family nearby, President Obama was sworn into office in the White House before noon on Sunday in advance of Monday's public pomp, the private moment forced by a rare quirk of the constitutional calendar but appropriately capturing the downsized expectations for his second term.

Even the Monday festivities, with the traditional inaugural parade, balls and not least the re-enactment outside the Capitol of Mr. Obama's swearing-in, will be less spectacular than four years ago, when the new president embodied hope and change for most Americans at a time of global economic crisis and two wars. This year fewer parties are planned, and fewer people are expected to swarm the National Mall.

The private but official swearing-in of the 44th president at 11:55 a.m. was just the seventh such event in history to be held before the public ceremony, and the first since Ronald Reagan's second inaugural, each one occurring because the constitutionally mandated date for the inauguration fell on a Sunday. Recorded and televised minutes later, the simple scene suggested a couple marrying before a justice of the peace, with a big ceremony and party planned for later.

Only Michelle Obama, holding her family Bible, and the couple's daughters, Malia and Sasha, stood beside Mr. Obama, in the grand Blue Room as he recited the oath specified in the Constitution and again administered to him by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The chief justice administered the oath faithfully and Mr. Obama repeated it accurately, unlike four years earlier, when Mr. Roberts inverted a few words during the public swearing-in, Mr. Obama echoed the errors, and the oath had to be repeated in private later. The chief justice, who had relied on his famously prodigious memory in 2009, this time took no chances: He read the oath from a printed text.

After they finished, Justice Roberts congratulated Mr. Obama, who thanked him twice as the two shook hands. Mr. Obama next embraced his wife and daughters in turn. His younger daughter, Sasha, said, "Good job, Daddy," and he replied "I did it!" only to have her joke, in reference to the problem four years earlier, "You didn't mess up." Mr. Obama laughed as he turned to the pool of reporters and about a dozen relatives, saying, "Thank you, everybody" before exiting the room.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was sworn in earlier at his residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, using the same 19th-century family Bible he has used in every swearing-in ceremony since he entered the Senate in 1973.

At Mr. Biden's request, the oath was delivered by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He was surrounded by family members, including his wife, Jill.

Afterward, Mr. Biden shook the justice's hand, turned to a large audience of family, friends and close political associates, and expressed his warm thanks. Justice Sotomayor, he noted, was due in New York and had a car waiting to take her to Union Station. "Madame Justice, it's been an honor, a great honor," he said.

Mr. Biden then left for Arlington National Cemetery, where he joined President Obama in laying a wreath before the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The president and his family later traveled to Washington to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic church with a long record of activism against racism -- it once harbored runaway slaves -- to worship and to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The federal holiday honoring Dr. King coincides this year with Inauguration Day.

The congregation was enthusiastic, according to pool reports, and the sermon ended with a boisterous call and response of "Forward" – the president's one-word campaign slogan.

These events took place mostly out of view of the hundreds of thousands of Americans, foreign visitors and dignitaries who have poured into Washington to be a part of the second inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, a more restrained affair than four years ago but still a resonant marker in the nation's history.

The oaths mark not only the official start of the second Obama-Biden term but also a certain demarcation between the challenges of the first term -- winding down two wars, dealing with an economic recession, passage of landmark health care legislation amid fierce partisan wrangling -- and the typically more modest agenda of a second-term president.

Mr. Obama, whose hair has visibly grayed over the past four years, has certain advantages as he looks ahead to an agenda expected to include immigration overhaul, a push for gun control, efforts to speed the economic recovery and an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Polls show he has the cautious support of at least a bare majority of Americans, though recent surveys also confirm the nation's persistently sharp partisan divide.

A stock market that lost hundreds of points on the eve of his first term has rallied, despite an otherwise tepid recovery. The debt crisis in Europe appears to have subsided for now, but other enormous foreign-policy challenges loom: in North Korea, Iran, across the Middle East and most recently in North Africa.

Still, across Washington, the mood was festive on Sunday as final preparations for the events of Monday, from morning prayers to glamorous balls, parties and candlelight celebrations in the evening, were completed.

Flags have sprouted on official Washington facades, bunting adorns banks and luxury hotels, tall metal barriers and cumbersome concrete ones are in place to block or divert traffic, and the gleaming white presidential reviewing stand, with its bulletproof windows and steeply sloped roof, awaits the arrival of the official parade on Monday.

A crowd of up to 800,000 is expected to assemble Monday on the National Mall for the inaugural festivities, while millions more watch on television from afar.

On Sunday, when Mr. Obama repeated the oath, swearing to faithfully execute the office of president and "to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," he placed his hand on a Bible that Mrs. Obama's father, Fraser Robinson III, gave to his own mother, LaVaughn Delores Robinson, in 1958.

The Blue Room, with its royal blue and gold carpet and French Empire-style ornamentation, has long been used for White House receptions. President Grover Cleveland married his much younger bride, Frances Folsom, there on June 2, 1886, as John Philip Sousa led the Marine Band in a rendition of the Wedding March from a nearby hall. James Monroe sipped tea there with Great Plains Indian leaders. The main White House Christmas tree graces the room each year.

In recent weeks, White House officials, apparently hoping to keep the public focus on Monday's ceremonies, had hinted that reporters would be excluded from the swearing-in on Sunday.

There is precedent for that approach: When Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday in 1877, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite administered the oath to Rutherford B. Hayes in the Red Room with no one else present; the private swearing-in had come as a complete surprise to the public, with a news report at the time saying it had remained a "profound secret."

This year, the White House ultimately decided to allow a small pool of reporters and a network television camera crew record the event.

But there was not much to record; the president was saving his speechmaking for Monday, when he is expected to deliver an Inaugural Address of about 20 minutes from the western steps of the Capitol. One of his senior advisers, David Plouffe, said Sunday on the ABC program "This Week" that while Mr. Obama would lay out his vision for a second term on Monday, "the detailed blueprint and ideas will be in the State of the Union" address, on Feb. 12.

The four swearings-in for Mr. Obama, including the one to come on Monday, might seem to place him in rare historic company -- along with the only four-term president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he is not the only president to have been privately sworn in on the morning of Inauguration Day to ensure a smooth transition.

Two other presidents did so because Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, according to the White House Historical Association: Ronald Reagan in 1985 (which was just as well: frigid weather forced the cancellation of the next day's inaugural parade, and the swearing-in was moved to the Capitol Rotunda), Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 (the president and Vice President Richard M. Nixon were sworn in back to back in the East Room; Nixon's young daughter Julie had a black eye from a sledding accident)

There were other times the normal Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, but they were before 1933, when the ratification of the 20th Amendment changed the mandated inaugural date to Jan. 20 from March 4.

The first time Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, in 1821, James Monroe consulted with Chief Justice John Marshall and decided to simply postpone the ceremony a day. Twenty-eight years later, Zachary Taylor did the same, though some at the time questioned who in fact was president during the one-day gap.

But in 1877, Hayes, after consultation with Chief Justice Waite and others, decided to take the oath privately a day early. They had concluded, as an Associated Press report said at the time, that "such a course was advisable, though it was not anticipated that any exigency would arise under which, in case there was an interregnum in the Executive Office, the peace of the country would be imperiled."

Woodrow Wilson was also sworn early in 1917. Edith Bolling Wilson, a first lady not always treated gently in the press, later wrote that she and her husband found the simple ceremony "more to our taste than the formal Inauguration, which followed on Monday."

It was in keeping with that tradition of ensuring a smooth transition that the events of Sunday were unfurling.

Correction: January 20, 2013, Sunday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A previous version of this article misstated the month that Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated. It was March, not January.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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