The Presidential Inauguration: Duty or Tradition?

By Aurora Walker.

Inauguration Day is a long-standing tradition in the United States, marking the transition of presidential power from one individual to another. It is typically surrounded by many officialinaugural events, culminating in the inauguration ceremony. On Wednesday, January20, 2021, Joseph Biden was sworn in as the United States’ 46thPresident, with Kamala Harris as Vice President. The historic inauguration ceremony came exactly two weeks after Trump supporters laid siege to theCapitol building. This led to more than 20,000 National Guard troops being called in to the Capitol leading up to and during the inauguration.

What happened during the inauguration ceremony?

Of course, the highlight was the swearing in of our new federal executive leadership. Kamala Harris was sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, making history as the first woman and person of color to be Vice President. Joseph Biden was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts, and afterward encouraged national unity in his moving inaugural address.

Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in American history, stole the show with her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Bernie Sanders and his mittens became a meme. Lady Gaga, Jenifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks all gave amazing music performances. And while live attendance was extremely limited, the attendees provided the country with some favorite fashion moments.

Shockingly, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump did not attend the ceremony. Trump also failed to participate in many of the other traditions leading up to the inauguration ceremony. Usually the sitting president’s presence is a big part of the event. The symbolic and literal transfer of power from one president to another is the reason we have inauguration ceremonies. All of the other living past presidents were in attendance this year, except for Jimmy Carter, who was not well enough to attend.

While Trump’s absence may seem surprising, this is not the first time in history that a sitting president has not attended the inauguration ceremony of his successor. According to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, “[i]t’s usually a sign that American society is in the midst of major political feud.” John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson also skipped out on their successors’ inaugurations. Each served a single term, and Johnson was also impeached. Like attendance on inauguration day, there are many presidential duties that are not constitutionally required of the president—some have been borne from tradition.

What are the constitutional duties of the president?

Article II of the Constitution is dedicated to the executive branch of the federal government. Section 1 contains the basics about the presidential office. A presidential term is 4 years. To run for president, a person must be a natural-born citizen, at least age 35, and resident of the U.S.  for at least 14 years. Section 4 gives Congress the power to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors and explains the impeachment procedure.

Section 2 is where the official duties of the president begin. In this section, the president is granted the title of Commander in Chief. He is responsible for the United States military. He has the power to grant reprieves and pardons, make treaties with other nations, and fill temporary vacancies in the Senate. One of the most important responsibilities the president has is to appoint ambassadors, public officials, Supreme Court justices, and other officers. Supreme Court justices, who may serve for life, are especially powerful to secure a president’s legacy.

The presidential duties continue in Section 3. The president must give Congress information on the state of the union. Over the years, this duty has come to be known as the annual State of the Union Address. He must receive ambassadors and commission all officers of the United States. Finally, the president must take care that the laws are faithfully executed and enforced. All of Article II’s enumerated duties dictate the presidential power encompassingthe executive branch that we have today. The Executive Office of the President, headed by the White House Chief of Staff, consists of the president’s closest advisors. The president also appoints members of the Cabinet, who each heads one of the fifteen administrative departments.

What are the presidential duties that are born from tradition?

Our first president, George Washington, chose to remain in office for only two terms. His example set the precedent that every president after him would follow until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Toward the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, FDR broke the traditional two term precedent and ran for a third term. He ultimately served for four terms, and two years after his death, Congress passed the 22ndAmendment, making it unconstitutional for a President to stay in office for more than two terms. What began as a tradition is now codified in the Constitution.

The president and his family living in the White House is also born from tradition. Construction on the White House began in 1792 and the first president to live in the White House was John Adams, who moved into the White House in 1800. Ever since then, every president and their families have resided in the White House in Washington D.C., making their own additions and changes, but there is no legal mandate for this. On a related note, presidential pets are also just a tradition. Both before and after the election, many social media users posted their support of  Joe Biden, expressing excitement that there would be a dog in the White House again. Counting President Biden, 31 of our presidents have had dogs during their presidency.

Finally, the president’s attendance at their successor’s inauguration is a traditional duty, not a legal duty. The presidential oath of office is found in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and is the only part of the inauguration ceremony that is constitutionally mandated. The individual who is being sworn in as the new president must attend, but there is no requirement for the president who is leaving office to be there. Many of the other elements of the event come from tradition. For example, George Washington took the oath on a Bible, out in the open with a crowd watching, and gave his inaugural speech afterwards. These traditions have remained for every inauguration, with more recent additions like performances, parades, and inaugural balls.

The Bottom Line

Under the current Constitution, there is no requirement for a sitting president to attend his successor’s inauguration. While it’s not technically unconstitutional, it’s also not a great look for a president and shows just how wide the political rift in America is right now.

"Inaguration Day 2009 2" by ZOOPMON is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0