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US Presidential Inaugurations Transfer Power Peacefully


The inauguration of a new president caps a political process that began more than a year and a half ago when candidates first announced their aspirations for the White House. The inaugural ceremonies are steeped in tradition and symbolism meant to show the continuity and strength of the American political system. In this final segment of How America Elects, VOA explains what takes place on Inauguration Day, and why.

Several U.S. Presidents have taken the oath of office:

"I, George Walker Bush"
"I, William Jefferson Clinton"
"I, George Herbert Walker Bush do solemnly swear"
(Back to Bush) "that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States
(Clinton) "and will, to the best of my ability,"
(Bush) "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States
(Bush ) "so help me, God"

At noon on January 20, more than two months after the election, presidential power transfers from the outgoing occupant of the White House to the one who will be there for the next four years. Inauguration Day is an unbroken chain that stretches back 220 years to 1789, when America's first president, George Washington, took the oath of office.

Inauguration Day, says Georgetown University professor Mark Rom, is meant to convey continuity. "The inauguration is an incredibly powerful symbolic moment for the American people," Professor Rom said. "Because it is the time when one democratically elected president leaves office, and another democratically elected president takes over office. And, the transition is peaceful and ceremonial.

It starts in mid morning, when the president-elect comes to the White House to meet with the outgoing Chief Executive. Then, the two ride together to the Capitol for the swearing in.

"The idea that the current president and the incoming president sit down together, [and] ride to the inauguration together - power is transferred symbolically and legitimately," Professor Ben Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University said.

At noon on Inauguration Day, the new president takes the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His presence is highly symbolic.

"It is in effect saying that the fact that this new individual is exercising power is consistent with the Constitution of the United States, the laws of the United States, the wisdom and hopes of the framers of our Constitution," Professor Ginsberg adds.

Every president has taken the oath of office with his hand on a Christian Bible. But that custom, which dates back to George Washington, is not meant as a direct connection to Christianity.

"Well, the reason why we do that is not to pay homage to a particular conception of an individual god, that is, not for religious reasons, but [rather], for what we call civic religion, or public religion -- that there is something broader than just the people, that there is something spiritual about our nation," Professor Rom stated.

The new president, as head of state, is given a 21-gun salute.

Then, he gives his first official speech, the Inaugural Address.

President George W. Bush address: "Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion, and character."

"The eyes of the world will be on him, [and] the eyes of our country will be on him to see how he defines the vision for his presidency," Professor Rom said. "The public will be looking for a few short, sweet, powerful statements that gives this vision a concrete reality for the public."

After the Capitol ceremonies, the outgoing president departs, while the new president goes to the White House, where he enjoys a massive parade celebrating his inauguration.

That evening, there are balls and receptions where the revelry extends well into the night.

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