“Unity is the only path forward,” proclaimed Joseph R. Biden, as he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, vowing to lead his nation faithfully through a series of unprecedented economic, health, and political crises.
With his hand on his family’s 127-year-old Bible, he promised to be a “president for all Americans.” He stood at the West Front of the Capitol building, the exact place that was violently stormed by rioters who sought to prevent him from taking office just two weeks prior.
“Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile,” he said. “And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Addressing the deadly Covid-19 pandemic rocking the country, the resulting economic spiral, deepening political divisions, and crises of racial justice, Biden called for togetherness.
“Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now,” said the newly sworn-in president.
The Democratic Party leader channelled Abraham Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg address – which rallied the country in the midst of the civil war – in his impassioned speech.
“On this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries,” he said.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts – if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes,” he continued.
In a heartfelt, plainspoken plea, he asked Republican lawmakers and constituents simply to “hear me out” as he attempts to take the country forward.
“Take a measure of me and my heart, and if you still disagree, so be it. The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our republic is perhaps the nation’s greatest strength. Hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
“We look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic—and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and must be,” he said.
Biden’s 50-year track record as a moderate politician suggests he will approach his Republican colleagues not as opponents, but as friends who disagree. Exhausted after a tumultuous four years guided by the Trump administration, there is hope that Republicans will follow Biden’s lead.
Mitch McConnell, the now Senate minority leader and Republican lawmaker from Kentucky, said on Wednesday, “I congratulate my friend from Delaware and look forward to working with him as our new president wherever possible.”
Although a bright turning moment in politics, the ceremony struck a sombre tone.
In contrast to previous inaugurations, President Biden spoke to an empty National Mall. Because of restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed over 400,000 US lives, only about 1,000 people were able to attend this year — barely a fraction of the usual 200,000 spectators. And, for the first time since 1949, there was no inaugural ball: the convention centre where it is traditionally hosted has been transformed into an emergency hospital.
Breaking a 152-year tradition, President Trump refused to attend his successor’s swearing-in ceremony. He left Washington on Wednesday defeated, twice impeached, and permanently banned from his preferred social media platform.
“We will be back in some form,” the departing leader said as he boarded Air Force One for the last time, to fly to his resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
Trump has been charged by the US House of Representatives with “willful incitement of insurrection,” after his instigation of the violent mob which stormed the US Capitol on January 6. The riot was fuelled by the false belief that the election was “stolen” from him. Five died and countless were injured.
For some residents of Washington DC, the events of that fateful day remain painfully fresh in the memory.
“I was genuinely scared,” Michael Brewer, a law student who was blocks away from the Capitol when the riot broke out, told the Times. “I questioned the integrity of our democracy. I kept thinking, ‘What’s next? What’s going to happen next week?’”
Officials were on high alert on Wednesday, launching unprecedented security measures to prepare for the inauguration. Instead of the usual levels of high activity ahead of a presidential transition, Washington was reduced to a ghost town after the riot.
Barricades of metal fencing topped with razor wire stretched for three miles across the city to enclose the National Mall and Capitol building. Restaurants and museums were ordered to remain closed to discourage visitors from coming into the city ahead of the ceremony.
Over 25,000 National Guard troops were deployed to Washington for the inauguration.
“The streets have been empty since January 6,” said Brewer. “I see more military officials than anyone else.”
On the day of the inauguration, one member of the National Guard stood in front of a military humvee in full uniform, a camouflage suit with heavy assault rifles hanging across his chest and back. The deserted city street seemed an unlikely backdrop for his combat gear.
“I’m just a kid in college, but I was deployed to come here on the 7th [of January]” he said, refusing to give his name. “It’s been a quiet day so far. And after what happened a few weeks ago, that is how we want it.”
Biden’s heartfelt call to restore order underlined his willingness to take swift action in overturning the policies and practices of the Trump’s administration. His presidency secures Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. But their control is fragile: Democrats barely claim a majority in the House, and their hold of the Senate is owed to Kamala Harris’ power to cast a tie-breaking vote as vice president.
The narrow majority will help Biden as he fills out his Cabinet and passes his initial agenda, beginning with a coronavirus relief package.
“There’s no time to start like today,” he said Wednesday night. “We’re going to start by keeping the promises I made to the American people.”
He swiftly began by signing more than a dozen actions in his first hours in office on Wednesday, including measures to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, mandate the wearing masks on federal property, end construction of the Southern border wall, and repeal travel bans from several Muslim-majority countries.
Biden has also proposed an ambitious immigration reform bill that would offer legal status and a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people, heighten border security and provide aid to countries in Central America. And on Thursday morning, he signed executive orders to ramp up Covid-19 vaccinations, increase testing, and open schools.
The work is already underway – and it marks a substantive break with the tone of the last four years. Biden has vowed to give the nation everything he has. “My whole soul is in this,” he declared in his inaugural address.