Preparing to be Inaugurated as US President
Created | Updated Oct 4, 2010
If you are ever elected to the office of the President of the United States, you do not immediately become president. You must be inaugurated into the office following a short period after the election1. Your inaugural address will set the stage for your administration. This is very important. Though you have much to worry about, as you prepare to assume the office, your inauguration should be at the top of your worries list.
As President, you must generally attempt to bring together your supporters and enemies for progress and win support and unity from your constituents. Since the population of the United States is well over 200 million, this may be difficult, and this is why many addresses are long and cover many topics.
Millions of spectators watch through television or at the event (usually outside the Capitol building on the 20 January following the election), and choosing the perfect words is very important. A few words could lose thousands of votes in the next election or could cost a bit of power in your term. Your inaugural address could also make you very popular, and lead to a very strong and useful presidency.
For many years, elected Presidents were inaugurated on the 4 March following the election. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution called for Presidents to be inaugurated on 20 January following the election, which first happened on 20 January, 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected to his second term. Basically the same thing happens every time - they are sworn in and the new president makes an address.
Here are some tips that may be useful to make your inauguration as US President memorable.
For most of the existence of the United States, there were two important political parties.
The first two opposing parties were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson, leader of the former, declared in his inaugural address ‘Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans2 - we are all Federalists.’. Jefferson, the first President inaugurated in Washington DC, knew not to gloat. Gloating alienates the opposing parties.
By the late 1800s, the more familiar Republican - Democrat two party system was in place, as it is today. John F Kennedy declared in his inaugural address ’We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.’ Most inaugural addresses now stress bipartisanship, because, most seem to imply, the election is the time for party politics and as presidency begins in this event, this would be a good time to start working towards a unity. Whatever party you are a member of, it is generally unproductive to gloat.
Sometimes, not gloating is entirely different from being humble. When you take the office of president through the Presidential line of succession, it would not only be impolite to gloat, it would be confusing.
Shortly after Lyndon Johnson took office after John F Kennedy was assassinated, he addressed the Congress to tell them ’All I have, I would give not to be standing here today’. Unwillingly, Johnson seemed to humbly continue government despite the tragedy of the death of Kennedy. He told people he would do his best, and that was all he could do. It seemed to reflect the unassuming nature of the country at the time.
Thomas Jefferson walked to his inauguration. He considered himself a servant of his nation, and he thought it was his duty to be President if his nation called on him to do so. He said in his inaugural address:
Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire.
Jefferson was not only humble - he said he did not deserve the office. Arrogance is not an attractive quality. So in your inaugural address, don’t be arrogant!
Don’t Get Sick
At his inauguration in 1841, William Henry Harrison refused to wear clothing that would keep him warm, because he was very old at the time and didn't want to be seen as weak. He caught a cold at it3, and being almost 70 years old, he became sickly. As he went out to buy vegetables one day in March, Harrison’s cold became a pneumonia and he died on 4 April, about 30 days after he took office. That made him the shortest serving president and the first president to die in office.
So, learn a lesson from this. If you are elected president, bundle up. Wear your hat and mittens - maybe a scarf too. You never can be too careful. Look at what happened to Harrison.
Practice the Oath
Make sure to practice your speech and your swearing in. The process of being sworn in is simple. The oath of office is usually administered by a high-ranking member of the Judicial Branch. Most often this is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sometimes it is lesser officials. Calvin Coolidge’s father, a justice of the peace swore him in4. This person will ask you to raise your right hand, place your left hand on a Bible and say:
I 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.
Sometimes the wording changes very slightly, but the oath administrator will feed you the words by asking you to repeat after him anyway. You may even wish to add a bit to the end of your oath as well. After Robert R Livingston administrated the oath of office to the first president, George Washington set a tradition by adding ‘so help me god!’ to the end of the oath and kissing the Bible.
Practice this... because the oath is very important. The rest is simply symbolic.
The Inaugural Address of a president - especially a new president - seems to be a time when he or she can be optimistic about the condition of the world without critics doubting practicality. John F Kennedy was improbably idealistic in his speech, and yet because it came from a new president, it seemed as if anything was possible - it was, in essence, a clean slate.
Lincoln attempted to stop a war in his inaugural address, by assuring southerners that he would not interfere in slavery where the constitution allowed it. This was not enough though, and shortly after Lincoln’s address, the American Civil War started. Many presidents are optimistic, and use their first addresses in the office to lay out immediate plans, or lay down policies. An idealistic aura can’t hurt.
All presidents want a place in history - maybe their head on Mount Rushmore if they decide to make an addition to it. To get a place in history, you must build up a distinction between yourself and your predecessor.
The exception to this is if you’re someone as charismatic and interesting as Theodore Roosevelt, who took office after William McKinley was assassinated, and promised McKinley’s policies would continue ‘absolutely unbroken’5. He promised not to change, and he is famous today - the Teddy bear is even named after him!
Almost all of the 'great presidents' represented change, and that is why they are remembered. Sticking to the status quo never impresses anyone.
There are certain mannerisms and words a president-elect can use to make him seem 'presidential'. You will probably have perfected this in your campaign for the office, but that was only practice. This will be your first speech as president, so you must flaunt your presidential traits.
Some people are simply presidential by nature. Hair can be inherently presidential, and so can clothing. It is important to be seen as fiercely patriotic, perhaps with a US flag tie and a pin with the slogan ‘God Bless America’. A distinctly American accent can, unsurprisingly, be helpful in this as well. Referring to America as ‘this great nation’ in the speech constantly is popular.
To be presidential is also to be seen as a strong leader. Laying out specific plans (or simply letting the people know you have plans) and giving hope by declaring the nation will overcome whatever problems it is in that week is a good way to do this.
Pick a Theme or Two
At the formation of the American government, most presidents focused on the virtues that should be supported by. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the major theme of all presidential speeches were about preserving the union and the integrity of the constitution. During the Depression, and World War Two, President Roosevelt spoke about victory and prosperity. During the Cold War and nuclear age, the theme of all inaugurations were generally about maintaining peace in a dangerous world.
Generally, a president’s themes are decided by what times he governs in. But it is important to have a single focus for the entire speech to be based upon, or to continue to refer to. Especially if you live in uneventful times.
You don’t want to appear as a ‘one-trick pony’ but a goal or theme of your administration (vague ones are popular) seem to be effective in getting citizens to rally behind you. You may want to choose a Domestic Affairs theme and a separate Foreign Policy theme. Eras of foreign policy and domestic affairs may overlap - for instance the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement were both important during the 1960s.
A good quote can make your inaugural address immortal and memorable. It can inspire people. It can keep you in the news. Never discount the value of one good quote.
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
In his first Presidential Inauguration on 4 March, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a powerful speech, and his assurance that the only thing the nation has to fear is too much fear is now legendary.
And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
John F Kennedy, in his inaugural address on 20 January, 1961 asked Americans and citizens of the world to unify against the common enemies of man. It was climaxed by arguably his most famous quote, telling Americans to help their nation in his endeavour.
Let the people come forward.
At his inauguration on 4 March, 1913, Woodrow Wilson saw that police had prevented people from standing directly in front of the main podium where he was speaking. He asked them to let the people come forward. To many, this quote symbolized the attitude Wilson brought to the role of president.
The Inaugural Ball
Most new Presidents and new First Ladies hold an Inaugural Ball to celebrate the inauguration. Throughout history, the US Marine Band has often played the music for the ball.
Few presidents have not done this. Some Presidents like Woodrow Wilson are not the kind of people who liked large parties, and abstained from throwing one. Also, presidents who only come into the office from the death of a president before him (usually this means the Vice President is inaugurated) rarely wish to celebrate their coming to the office.
Also, a Vice President taking the office of president generally does not have enough time to plan an inaugural ball - Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated only an hour and 39 minutes after John F Kennedy’s death. Calvin Coolidge was inaugurated at 2.45am, slightly after being awoken in the middle of the night. It would not be convenient for inaugural balls in that sort of conditions.
Fireworks and Parades
According to tradition, after the inauguration of an elected president, there is a parade and fireworks. Fireworks were first used at the first inauguration of a president, and at most of the subsequent inaugurations. Parades are usually held to make a big deal of the ceremony. As a result, inaugurations can be very interesting and fun ceremonies. Be sure to plan entertaining parades and fireworks.
The shortest inaugural address ever was 135 words - made by George Washington the second time he was inaugurated on 4 March, 1793. The longest belongs to William H Harrison’s speech was about 10,000 words long - about 74 times longer than Washington’s. Incidentally, William H Harrison would have the shortest presidency.
You may lose interest if your speech is as long as Harrison’s. Your speech should be clear, concise and it should hold the attention of your audience. However, you may not wish to make your address as short as Washington did - 135 words is only slightly longer than this section is. The trick is to get enough words to say everything you need to say without boring people to tears. That’s what speechwriters are for.
As with anything, to prepare for a future inauguration, it’s useful to understand the past. Here are some interesting firsts and facts about the inauguration of US Presidents:
30 April, 1789 - first inauguration, where George Washington started tradition of kissing bibles and saying ‘so help me god’ at the end of the oath.
4 March, 1793 - shortest inaugural address, of George Washington, only 135 words long.
4 March, 1797, the inauguration of John Adams was the first performed by a Supreme Court Chief Justice.
4 March, 1801 was the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. It was the only time a president walked to his inauguration, and the first inauguration in Washington DC.
4 March, 1829 was Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. His administration strived to reflect the views of the common man, and the inauguration of ‘Old Hickory’ as he was known, demonstrated this clearly. A huge crowd of regular people followed Jackson throughout the inauguration, ending at a reception in the White House. There, they made themselves into a mob - pushing, breaking china, tearing drapes etc. Jackson escaped through a window.
4 March, 1841 - longest inaugural address, by William H Harrison.
4 September, 1901 was the only time that a president, in this case Theodore Roosevelt, was not sworn in with his left hand on a Bible.
4 March, 1914 - Woodrow Wilson and his wife chose not to hold an inaugural ball.
4 March, 1925 - the second inauguration of Calvin Coolidge was the first to be broadcast nationally over the radio.
20 January, 1937 - the second inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt was the first held on 20 January, because of the 20th amendment.
20 January, 1949, the inauguration of Harry S Truman, was the first time an inaugural address was televised.
22 November, 1963 was the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson and the assassination of John F Kennedy. It was the first time a woman delivered the oath of office, and the first time the inauguration was held on an aeroplane.
20 January, 1981 was the first inauguration of President Reagan, and the only time nine inaugural balls were held.