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Originally published January 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 21, 2009 at 9:35 AM

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Obama may need mulligan on oath

Because of a noticeable gaffe by Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama transposed words.

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WASHINGTON — The oath of office is required of a new president, and the Constitution is clear that its 35 words must be spoken exactly.

Which is what makes the oath President Obama took Tuesday so interesting. It might be that spectators didn't witness Obama being sworn in. Because of a noticeable gaffe by Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama transposed words.

It began with a false start by Obama, who responded before Roberts had completed the first phrase. Obama ended up saying the first two words — "I, Barack" — twice.

Then there was an awkward pause after Roberts prompted Obama with these words: "That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully." The chief justice seemed to say "to" rather than "of," but the main problem was that "faithfully" had floated upstream in the text, which actually says this: "That I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States."

Obama seemed to realize this, pausing quizzically after saying, "that I will execute."

Roberts gave it another try, getting closer but still not quite right with this: "Faithfully the office of president of the United States." He omitted the word "execute."

Obama now repeated Roberts' initial error of putting "faithfully" at the end. Starting where he had paused abruptly, Obama said, "The office of president of the United States faithfully."

Constitutional-law experts agree the flub is insignificant. Yet two presidents — Calvin Coolidge and Chester Arthur — repeated the oath privately because of similar issues.

Lawyers said Obama and his supporters need not be worried about the legitimacy of his presidency, but they said a do-over couldn't hurt. Charles Cooper, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under President Reagan, said the oath is mandatory, an incorrect recitation should be fixed and he would be surprised if the oath hadn't been re-administered already.

Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale constitutional-law professor, said: "Out of a superabundance of caution, perhaps he should do it again."

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional-law professor at George Washington University, agreed — for one reason.

"He should probably go ahead and take the oath again," Turley said. "If he doesn't, there are going to be people who for the next four years are going to argue that he didn't meet the constitutional standard. I don't think it's necessary, and it's not a constitutional crisis. This is the chief justice's version of a wardrobe malfunction."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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