President Joe Biden declared “democracy has prevailed” Wednesday (January 20) after he was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, calling for Americans to unite and confront the perilous challenges before them: a deadly coronavirus pandemic, economic turmoil and deep divisions over American leadership.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Biden declared in his 21-minute address.
“Today, we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause of democracy, the people, the will of the people has been heard,” he continued. “We’ve learned again, that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Forty-eight years after he entered Congress as the junior senator from Delaware, Biden stood at the U.S. Capitol and recited the oath of office in the Constitution – words that have been spoken by his predecessors, dating back to President George Washington.
Facing a raging pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, the inauguration was stripped of much of its pomp and circumstance, but the symbolism of the peaceful transfer of power was nevertheless clear. Lawmakers and former presidents of both parties and members of the Supreme Court, wearing masks as they took their seats, were on hand to witness the historic ceremony.
Biden, 78, takes the helm at a precarious moment in U.S. history, as the nation continues its struggle with the deadly virus and the logistical challenge of vaccinating hundreds of millions of people. He also comes to power two weeks after a mob supporting former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, underscoring simmering tensions in U.S. politics that Biden must find a way to navigate if he hopes to advance his ambitious agenda.
Trump skipped the event, breaking with more than 150 years of tradition, and left earlier Wednesday for Florida. Vice President Mike Pence did attend.Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in attendance. Biden said he spoke to former President Jimmy Carter, who was unable to attend the ceremony.
Biden sounded a hopeful tone throughout much of his 21-minute address,repeatedly hitting on the theme of unity for a deeply divided nation. The new president asserted that his “whole soul” was invested in trying to bring people together after the bitterly fought election.
“I know speaking of unity can sound like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and are real, ” Biden continued. “But I also know they are not new.”
Biden called for a “fresh start” in Washington and vowed to fight as hard for those who didn’t vote for him as those who did support his candidacy.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
Touching on a theme often embraced by past presidents but largely missing over the past four years, Biden vowed to be a president for “all Americans.” He implored his critics to “hear me out” and “take a measure of me and my heart.” If they still disagreed, Biden said, he could live with it.
The new president’s administration made history before it even stepped into the White House, most notably because Vice President Kamala Harris of California was sworn in as the first woman, first Black American and first South Asian American to hold the office. Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a trailblazer in her own right as the first Latina justice on the high court.
The pandemic, meanwhile, forced organizers to encourage supporters to stay away. The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol has put law enforcement on high alert, with more than 25,000 National Guard members called in to help with security, large fences erected near the National Mall and a complete lockdown imposed in parts of Washington.
Trump left the White House for his Florida club at 8:18 a.m. EST, taking his final flight on Marine One and Air Force One. Speaking for nine minutes at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, Trump wished Biden success – without using his name – and touted his administration’s accomplishments.
The optics of the departure from the White House was highly unusual: A sitting president generally travels to the U.S. Capitol for the inauguration of a successor. Then, the former president generally accompanies the new president to the Capitol and lifts off from there, a symbol of the peaceful handover of power.
“I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they’ll have great success,” Trump told a few hundred supporters gathered at the base outside Washington. “They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”
Trump couldn’t quite let the election go. Pointing to the 2017 tax cut bill, an early legislative achievement, Trump said he hoped the new administration didn’t raise taxes. “But if they do, I told you so,” he said. And, echoing other public remarks in recent weeks, Trump hinted at a future for himself in politics.
“A goodbye. We love you,” he said. “We will be back in some form.”
Seconds after Trump stepped aboard Air Force One, Biden and his spouse, Dr. Jill Biden, emerged from Blair House, the guest accommodations near the White House where incoming presidents traditionally have stayed on the eve of their inauguration. Biden, joined by congressional leaders from both political parties, attended Mass before heading to the Capitol.
Biden, sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, ran a campaign focused on arresting a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans and returning what he has described as “decency, respect, tolerance” to politics. But whether Biden can bring a divided nation together while juggling competing demands within his party will likely be a central question of his next four years in office.
While the traditional inaugural parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House has been canceled by coronavirus, Biden will still march into the Oval Office to take part in another ritual for new presidents: Unwinding the work of the last guy. Aides said Biden will sign 15 orders on his first day, including: Resetting the U.S. relationship with the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate accord and reversing travel restrictions on several predominately Muslim countries – among others.
“We are eager and ready to get to work,” Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator and a former top official in the Obama administration said.
For Biden, 78, the inauguration represents triumph over adversity and the payoff that can come with persistence. Making his third run in 2020, the former vice president held off on a campaign in 2016, noting his family’s grief after the death of his son, Beau Biden. The younger Biden, the former Delaware Attorney General, died in 2015.
Struggling to hold back tears Tuesday, Biden said farewell to his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, before he departed for Washington, his new home.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I only have one regret, that he’s not here, because we should be introducing him as president,” Biden said of his son.
“This is kind of emotional for me,” Biden said, choking up at a “send-off” event before taking a short flight to the nation’s capital. “You’ve been with me my whole career, through the good times and the bad. I want to thank you for everything.”
He recalled waiting at a Wilmington train station 12 years ago to be picked up by Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, before they were inaugurated in 2009.
“And here we are today,” Biden said. “My family and I about to return to Washington, to meet a Black woman of South Asian descent to be sworn in as president and vice president of the United States.”