WASHINGTON – Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled slightly over the 35-word constitutionally prescribed oath of office as he swore in Barack Obama as the 44th president on Tuesday, sending the new chief executive into a verbal detour of his own.
"Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator," Roberts asked Obama, who was holding the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used the day he became president in 1861.
The swearing in began simply enough as Roberts started reciting the oath Obama was to repeat, a few words at a time.
"I Barack Hussein Obama," began Roberts.
"I Barack," said Obama, and before he could continue, Roberts said, "do solemnly swear."
Obama: "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear"
Roberts: "That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...
Obama: "that I will execute..."
Roberts: "faithfully execute the office of president of the United States..."
Obama: "The office of president of the United States faithfully..."
At that point, Roberts got back on course, leading as Obama followed with "and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
"So help you God?" asked Roberts.
"So help me God."
By tradition, the presidential oath is administered by the chief justice, and in Roberts' case, it was his first inauguration.
Later, as he and Obama chatted briefly before lunch in the Capitol, Roberts appeared to take responsibility for the error.
Roberts hosted Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the high court last week in a social call, and the swearing in was one of the first of what could be many important interactions between the heads of two branches of government who rose to their positions of power quickly and who have some background similarities, but whose politics differ.
The affable Roberts and his conservative-leaning Supreme Court could have much to say in the years to come about Obama's most important policy choices.
Former President George W. Bush left the court with two relatively young and reliably conservative voices, those of Roberts, 53, and Justice Samuel Alito, 58. Roberts took his seat in 2005 and Alito joined him the next year.
Roberts is the youngest chief justice in more than 200 years. He easily could still be in his role a quarter century from now, long after Obama has left office.
He and Obama are similar in many ways. Both are late baby boomers. Roberts is 53, Obama 47. And both got their law degrees from Harvard and made rapid ascents to power. But their politics diverge sharply.
Roberts was an official in Republican administrations before becoming an appeals court judge and then chief justice under Bush.
Obama was one of 22 Senate Democrats to vote against Roberts' confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2005 — the first time a Supreme Court justice has sworn in a president who voted against him.
As president, Obama will try to use any Supreme Court vacancies to counter Roberts' influence, either by replacing aging liberals with justices as young as or younger than Roberts or by changing the court's balance if a conservative justice retires unexpectedly.
Roberts added the words "so help me God" to the end of the constitutional oath, following a practice established by George Washington and followed by most presidents. And Obama repeated the phrase.
The last time a chief justice swore in a president of a different party was in 1997, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a Republican, swore in Democrat Bill Clinton for a second term. Two years later, Rehnquist would preside over Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate which resulted in an acquittal.
Obama didn't actually finish taking the oath until 12:05 p.m., five minutes after he actually became president under the Constitution. Clinton, in his first inauguration in 2001, also was five minutes late in taking the oath.
The Lincoln Bible used by Obama was on loan from the Library of Congress.