WASHINGTON — Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, ending his predecessor’s turbulent tenure and assuming the country’s highest office at a wrenching moment of crisis with a somber vow of renewal through unity.
Standing on the west front of the Capitol, a place transformed into a crime scene two weeks ago by an armed mob hellbent on derailing democracy, Biden placed his hand on a family Bible and took the oath of office shortly before assuming power at noon. Then he urged Americans to end “this uncivil war” and work together to overcome the pandemic, economic devastation, and political unrest.
“Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos,” Biden said. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward.”
Before he spoke, Kamala D. Harris became the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian person sworn in as vice president, shattering glass ceilings as she took her oath of office from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina and woman of color on the Supreme Court.
“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said of Harris’s historic firsts, evoking the suffragettes and the civil rights protesters led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who came to Washington decades earlier pressing for progress.
The day’s events served as a clean break from the erratic and falsehood laden presidency of Donald Trump, who rode to power by playing on white grievance and xenophobia, was impeached twice, and who tried — but failed — to overturn the results of the election with the help of Republicans in Congress.
Trump left the White House hours earlier, and became the first president in 152 years to snub his successor’s inauguration. Two weeks after a deadly mob of Trump supporters laid bare the fragility of the country’s governing norms and raised fears of more attacks from white supremacists or other far-right groups, the relief in the Capitol was palpable as power passed peacefully to Biden.
“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said. “From now, 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.”
The inauguration was a rebuke of the mob, one that showed the gears of democracy grinding forward through ritual in a time of uncertainty. But it was less a lavish celebration of American democracy than a spare reckoning with the challenges ahead in a country poignantly described from the stage by youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman as “a nation not broken but simply unfinished.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing security concerns about domestic terrorism rendered the National Mall closed, empty save for flags representing the hundreds of thousands of people who might have wanted to attend. Straight lines of troops stood sentinel over the proceedings, some of the 25,000 National Guard members who poured into the Capitol to secure the inauguration.
“This is a time of testing,” said Biden, a 78-year-old Democrat who is the nation’s oldest president. “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world.”
It was a somber picture of the country. But where Trump four years ago decried “American carnage,” and suggested only he could fix it, Biden implored the nation to reject the forces of partisanship and disinformation in favor of the country’s better angels.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said. “And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
His calls for comity already face strong headwinds, with the ascendance of right-wing media outlets like OAN and the persistent myth, stoked by Trump himself, that the election was rigged. Seven in 10 Republicans do not believe Biden was legitimately elected and many of the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election results appear to be sticking with Trump’s divisive politics.
Biden also used his first speech as president to do something Trump had not in the year since the pandemic arrived: Hold a moment of silence for the 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19.
“We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter,” Biden said. “We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”
Biden’s ascension to the presidency is the capstone of a long career in national politics, one that began in a hospital room in Delaware when he was sworn into the Senate in the throes of family tragedy in 1973, and led him to serve as vice president under Barack Obama.
In that time, he formed an unshakable faith in political institutions and nuts-and-bolts dealmaking — something he offered up Wednesday as an antidote to the Trump presidency, although he never said his name.
“I give you my word: I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I will defend our democracy,” Biden said, promising to “keep everything I do in your service, thinking not of power, but of possibilities, not of personal interest, but of the public good.”
Hours earlier, Trump stood in front of a couple hundred of his most devoted supporters and allies at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and bragged about his accomplishments as he prepared to fly to Florida. He spoke of the pandemic, which continues to claim thousands of victims every day, in the past tense.
“We love you. We will be back in some form,” he told the crowd. Later, before boarding Air Force One, he said, “So have a good life. We will see you soon.”
Biden will face an immense challenge in rebuilding the administrative state and filling key government roles Trump left empty. He moved immediately to begin unwinding some of Trump’s policies with a series of executive orders, memorandums, and directives that he signed on Wednesday evening.
From his desk in the Oval Office, Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. He also overturned Trump’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, stopped the construction of a wall along the nation’s southern border, and fully reinstated a program that provides temporary relief from deportation for immigrants brought into the country as children.
Other orders would spur sweeping overviews of federal resources invested in racial equity and of federal rules over environmental, energy conservation, forestry, and wildlife regulation.
At the inauguration, lawmakers and diplomats huddled under blankets as snowflakes swirled. Obama and his wife, Michelle, mingled in masks with former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. The presence of outgoing vice president Mike Pence offered a semblance of bipartisan normalcy to the unusual day.
”It just feels like we are on our way to mending this divide and bringing our country back together, and that feels really good after these four years,” said Representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts.
As the crowds cleared, Representatives Nikema Williams, of Georgia, and Sara Jacobs, of California, lingered a bit longer, to take photos, beam in live to followers on Instagram, and savor the moment.
They were elated to see Harris sworn in as the first woman and person of color to serve as vice president, and to welcome barrier-breaking Democrats from Georgia and California to the ranks of the Senate after they were sworn in Wednesday afternoon, which gave Democrats control of the chamber.
“The first Wednesday we had an insurrection on the Capitol, the second Wednesday we voted to impeach the president, and this Wednesday we are here,” Williams said.
But Williams stressed Democrats’ milestones reached in diverse representation had to be more than just symbolic. Now will come the hard part, moving past the political gridlock and reaching across the aisle, as congressional Democrats call for Trump and his allies to be held accountable for their roles in inciting the Capitol attack.
Asked whether Biden could unite the nation — and a divided Congress — Williams turned to a quote from James Baldwin: “I can love and work with anyone except for those people whose disagreement is rooted in my oppression and my denial of my humanity.”
Before the ceremony began, inauguration attendees had to make their way through a maze of security checkpoints and black fences topped with barbed wire at the Capitol. The rest of downtown Washington felt like a ghost town, with an enormous security perimeter around the White House, the National Mall, and the Capitol.
The thousands of Biden supporters who normally would have flocked to the city were urged to stay home because of the pandemic, the traditional parade from the Capitol to the White House was truncated, and the inaugural balls went virtual. Many of the street level retail stores around the city were boarded up out of fear of unrest — although there were surreal signs of life, like the National Guardsman in full uniform and weaponry waiting for a cup of coffee near Farragut Square.
But near the church where Biden attended Mass with Harris, their families, and bipartisan congressional leaders on Wednesday morning, a small crowd gathered, rising on their tiptoes for a glimpse of the pageantry.
Pender McCarter, 74, a retiree who has attended every inauguration since Richard Nixon’s, lifted his cameraphone in the air and offered a quiet greeting as Biden’s motorcade passed through the empty streets: “Hey, Mr. President.”