Joe Biden delivered messages of unity and optimism on Wednesday at his inaugural address, but told Americans “we still have far to go… in this winter of peril” as the nation continues struggling against a “once-in-a-century virus.”
The coronavirus crisis promises to be a formidable enemy for Mr Biden and the slim Democratic majorities in Congress in the coming months.
“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now,” he said.
“To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words and requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
About halfway through his roughly 21-minute address, Mr Biden led a moment of silent prayer for the more than 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid in the last year.
Mr Biden, who was sworn in at 11:48am on Wednesday on the front steps of a heavily fortified US Capitol, promised to “defeat” domestic terrorism in the wake of the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol just two weeks prior — an insurrection that most lawmakers agree was incited in part by his own predecessor, Republican Donald Trump,
The Democratic president has taken over command of the American executive branch from his 2020 election opponent with a desire to hit the ground running to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its resultant economic ruin.
Mr Biden did not mention Mr Trump by name, a departure from past inaugural addresses.
But he did make a veiled reference to his predecessor’s attempts over the last two and a half months to overturn the 2020 election results by spouting lies and conspiracy theories about a “stolen” election.
“Democracy has prevailed,” the new president said on Wednesday, adding that he US has learned a “painful lesson” about the fragility of its governmental system since Election Day last November.
“There is truth, and there are lies — lies told for power, and for profit. …. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, especially as leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth, to defeat the lies.”
Several Republican senators and House members who opposed the certification of Mr Biden’s victory and fueled the conspiracy theories about a stolen election — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, to name two — nevertheless attended the inaugural ceremonies.
Mr Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump left for their home in Florida, the ex-president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, earlier on Wednesday, the first time in more than 150 years a president has not been in Washington to see his successor sworn in.
Mr Biden’s message of unity on Wednesday echoes his central campaign pitch as someone with deep roots in Washington lawmaking circles who can reach across the aisle to help heal political divisions.
“Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward,” he said.
“Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another,” he said, urging Americans to “be better” than the divisive political tones of the last four years.
The president’s 2020 campaign was built around his personal capacity for empathy and first-hand experience with grief, in a year when millions of people lost parents, children, grandparents, siblings, and others to the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed more than 400,000 American lives.
He has promised to turn the page on the brash, often purposely divisive rhetoric emanating from the White House over the previous four years on everything from race relations and immigration to such democratic fundamentals as voting rights and basic government ethics.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” the president said on Wednesday. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Inauguration Day is traditionally one of bipartisan comity and optimism about the US’ path forward after a bitterly fought election. Wednesday’s ceremony was no different, despite the snubs from the former president and first lady.
Despite voting to block his election certification, Mr McCarthy, the top House Republican, expressed hope that the parties could work together on bipartisan legislation to address Covid and other crises.
“With margins in the House and Senate narrow, and President Biden promising to represent everyone, I believe we can unite and restore peace, prosperity, and safety,” the minority leader said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Looking ahead, I know we will be tested. But I also know there will be many promising opportunities for us to seize.”
Roadblocks: McConnell and an impeachment trial
But while Mr Biden has laid out an ambitious schedule for his first 100 days, that agenda could be complicated — and perhaps overshadowed — by the uncertainty surrounding Mr Trump’s impending Senate impeachment trial.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has not ruled out voting to convict Mr Trump of inciting the insurrection on 6 January that sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives, interrupting their proceedings to certify Mr Biden’s victory in the Electoral College.
A conviction vote — which would require at least 17 Republican senators to vote with all 50 Democratic senators — would bar Mr Trump from ever holding federal office again, choking off any speculation about a potential rematch with Mr Biden in 2024.
The insurrectionists who overtook the Capitol on 6 January were “provoked by the president and other powerful people,” Mr McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
“They tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like,” Mr McConnell said, adding that Mr Trump and others had “fed lies” to their followers about the 2020 election supposedly being “stolen.”
Mr McConnell, perhaps the chief antagonist of Barack Obama’s presidency as Senate minority leader (and later majority leader), was set to relinquish control of the Senate later on Wednesday with the swearing-in of Senators-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California.
The Kentucky Republican does not intend to roll over and let Mr Biden ram through the more progressive components of his legislative agenda.
While he and Mr Biden agree on the basic fact that the newly sworn-in president won a free and fair election, they still have drastically divergent views on everything from how to approach the Covid crisis, the US tax code, immigration reform, health care, and climate change to hot-button social issues such as abortion rights, gun control, and how to regulate Big Tech.
“November’s election did not hand any side a mandate for sweeping ideological change,” Mr McConnell asserted on Tuesday. “Our marching orders from the American people are clear: We’re to have a robust discussion and seek common ground. We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can, and check and balance one another respectfully where we must.”
Hitting the ground running
After an afternoon of ceremonial proceedings, including a presidential laying-of-the-wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr Biden is getting right to work on Wednesday by signing the most executive orders on Day One of any new administration in US history.
Through executive actions, the president will rejoin the World Health Organisation (WHO) from which Mr Trump withdrew the US last summer as well as the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement; repeal the so-called Muslim Ban barring travel to the US from several majority-Muslim countries; roll back several of Mr Trump’s anti-environmental initiatives; shore up protections for undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers”; and rescind his predecessor’s 1776 Commission.
But Mr Biden knows that to build a lasting legacy as president, to shape the country for future generations, he can’t simply rule by executive fiat.
The new president is “a Senate guy first and foremost,” an aide from the president’s legislative affairs team told staffers on Capitol Hill on a conference call earlier this week, outlining the plan for his first 10 days in office.
Mr Biden was a US senator from Delaware for 36 years before becoming vice president in 2009.
He is “not a fan of the imperial presidency, and we view these executive orders as building momentum for congressional action, not supplanting it,” the aide said of his presidential agenda.
The inauguration of a new president is traditionally a day for celebration, but an eerie quiet had settled over the capital city leading up to Wednesday’s ceremony with the memory of the Capitol riots two weeks early still fresh in everyone’s minds.
American democracy is “both fragile and resilient,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said on Wednesday in an introductory speech at Mr Biden’s swearing-in.
Coast Guard boats with mounted machine guns patrolled the Potomac River.
More than 25,000 members of the National Guard — armed with black assault rifles and wearing full camouflage — stood watch over the nation’s capital before, during, and after the inauguration.
“There are more troops around the Capitol than there are in Afghanistan,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday in a speech on the chamber floor.
Everyone was on high alert for Mr Biden’s big day.
The Supreme Court received a bomb threat shortly after 10am on Wednesday, just two hours before Mr Biden’s speech. Several lawmakers wore body armour to the swearing-in.
Ms Harris was escorted onto the Capitol balcony on Wednesday by US Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who has been hailed as a hero for diverting dozens of rioters away from the Senate chamber during the mayhem on 6 January.
A secure zone was established in downtown Washington for the ceremony at the Capitol and the subsequent presidential parade to the White House, with more than a dozen metro stations closed to deter people from travelling into the city.
The Guard had erected fences topped with barbed wire to surround the entire Capitol complex, where the inauguration ceremony commenced at 11am on Wednesday. Among the sacred buildings fenced off were the Capitol itself, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the six House and Senate office buildings on the outskirts.
Barricades for vehicles extend even farther out: a three-block perimeter in every direction from the nearest vital federal building on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol itself had become a makeshift barracks for the thousands of troops stationed in Washington for the inauguration, with rows upon rows of cots lining the walls of hallways that in ordinary times are the frenzied highways of legislative business.