Archive for January 22nd, 2009

Obama’s First Official Act: Flubbing the Oath

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

They say Obama’s first official act came yesterday, when he signed an executive order freezing the salaries of his senior aides.

As the NY Times reports:

President Obama moved swiftly on Wednesday to impose new rules on government transparency and ethics, using his first full day in office to freeze the salaries of his senior aides, mandate new limits on lobbyists and demand that the government disclose more information. …

The transparency and ethics moves were set forth in two executive orders and three presidential memorandums; Mr. Obama signed them at the swearing-in ceremony with a left-handed flourish.

The new president effectively reversed a post-9/11 Bush administration policy making it easier for government agencies to deny requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, and effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege in an effort to keep records secret.

Great stuff, long overdue.

But, frankly, I think his service began a day earlier, when he flubbed the oath of office.

I know — conventional wisdom has it that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up. And it’s true, Roberts omitted the word “faithfully” from the second line. But it was Obama, jumping in too early — before Roberts had finished the full first clause — who kick-started the chain reaction, tripping Roberts up.

When it happened, the Neurotic Democrat in me groaned. This was a clear and unambiguous tea leaf. A portent of terrible things to come.

After two days — and a private do-over between Roberts and Obama — I’ve come to see the flub as inspirational.

Consider: Obama screwed up the most important moment of his life. He did it in front of two million people on the Mall, and hundreds of millions more watching around the world. And, yet, he went right on to give a powerful inaugural address. Afterwards, he was gracious about it — instead of blaming Roberts, he lauded the chief justice for helping Obama through the rest of the oath.

Obama winds up looking calm, cool and collected. And humble. And he scores political points: The fact that he voted against Roberts in confirmation hearings — yet reached out to him to give the oath, as a gesture of bipartisanship — becomes part and parcel of the story. Had he not flubbed it, few people would even have been aware of the significance of Roberts’ administering the oath.

Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at an event — for instance, the one this weekend, featuring Ambassador Martin Indyk— and the q&a will arrive, and I will feel nervous: What if I flub the question in front of all those people? I rehearse my question over and over in my head, waiting for the right moment to raise my hand. To speak up. I feel nervous, even though I was a reporter for a decade. Even though I interviewed Yitzhak Rabin and John McCain and Ted Kennedy. I felt nervous then, too.

Obama’s oath was not a tea leaf. It was a lesson for us all.

Go ahead. Raise your hand.