WASHINGTON — Barack Obama will be inaugurated to his second term in office this month. His official swearing in is on Sunday, January 20 - the date prescribed by federal law. But the ceremony will be repeated for the public on Monday, January 21.
The inauguration of a president caps a political process that started more than a year and a half earlier. The ceremonies are steeped in tradition and symbolism, meant to show the continuity and strength of the American political system.
At noon on January 20, in the year following the November presidential election, a new U.S. president takes office, or the incumbent president continues on to a second four-year term.
Inauguration Day represents an unbroken chain stretching back to 1789, when the United States installed its first president, George Washington.
The ceremony conveys the strength - and the permanence - of the U.S. presidency. And as Georgetown University’s Mark Rom points out, it is a powerful symbolic moment for the American people.
"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," he said.
In the years when a new president comes into office, he meets with his predecessor at the White House on the morning of inauguration day. They go to the Capitol together for the swearing-in ceremony.
Awaiting them are members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, officials from the outgoing administration, and many of those who will serve under the new president. This represents both support for the office of the president, and a reflection of the office's continuity.
The new president takes the oath of office at noon, and it is administered by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His presence has symbolism of its own, says Johns Hopkins University Professor Ben Ginsberg.
"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," he said.
As America’s head of state, the new president receives a 21-gun salute.
And gives his first official speech, the Inaugural Address.
"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," explained Mark Rom of Georgetown University.
After being sworn in, the president travels to the White House, where he enjoys a massive inauguration parade. Groups from all over the country come to Washington to take part, symbolically reflecting the nation’s approval of the new Chief Executive.
Then, as the day becomes night, the inauguration festivities continue, as the new president attends one or several balls celebrating his ascension to the White House.
Being the president of the United States has been called the “toughest job in the world.” But the challenges ahead begin on this day surrounded by promise, and buoyed with hope.