WASHINGTON — Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States yesterday, declaring that “democracy has prevailed” and summoning American resilience and unity to confront the deeply divided nation’s historic confluence of crises.
Biden took the oath at a US Capitol that had been battered by an insurrectionist siege just two weeks earlier. On a cold Washington day dotted with snow flurries, the quadrennial ceremony unfolded within a circle of security forces evocative of a war zone and devoid of crowds because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, Biden gazed out over 200,000 American flags planted on the National Mall to symbolise those who could not attend in person.
“The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day in history and hope, of renewal and resolve.”
History was made at his side, as Kamala Harris became the first woman to be vice president. The former US senator from California is also the first black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency and the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the US government.
Biden never mentioned his predecessor, who defied tradition and left town ahead of the ceremony, but his speech was an implicit rebuke of Donald Trump. The new president denounced “lies told for power and for profit” and was blunt about the challenges ahead.
Central among them: the surging virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, as well as economic strains and a national reckoning over race.
“We have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain,” Biden said.
“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.”
Biden was eager to go big early, with an ambitious first 100 days including a push to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass a $1.9 trillion economic relief package. On day one, as part of a push to roll back Trump administration initiatives, he signed a series of executive actions, including to re-enter the Paris Climate Accords and to mandate mask-wearing on federal property.
“There’s no time to start like today,” Biden said as he signed the actions in the Oval Office.
The absence of Biden’s predecessor from the inaugural ceremony underscored the national rift to be healed.
But a bipartisan trio of former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — were there to witness the ceremonial transfer of power. Trump, awaiting his second impeachment trial, was at his Florida resort by the time the swearing-in took place.
Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanising a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. Four years after Trump’s “American Carnage” speech painted a dark portrait of national decay, Biden warned that the fabric of the nation’s democracy was tearing but expressed faith that it could be repaired.
“I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonisation have long torn us apart,” Biden said.
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”
Swearing the oath with his hand on a five-inch-thick Bible that has been in his family for 128 years, Biden came to office with a well of empathy and resolve born by personal tragedy as well as a depth of experience forged from more than four decades in Washington. At age 78, he is the oldest president inaugurated.
Both he, Harris and their spouses walked the last short part of the route to the White House after an abridged parade. Biden then strode into the Oval Office, a room he knew well as vice president, for the first time as commander in chief.
Earlier, the two were sworn in during an inauguration ceremony with few parallels. Biden, like all those in attendance, wore a face mask except when speaking. And tens of thousands of National Guard troops were on the streets to provide security precisely two weeks after a violent mob of Trump supporters, incited by the Republican president, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory.
“Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people,” Biden said.
“To stop the work of our democracy. To drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever. Not ever.”
The tense atmosphere evoked the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, who was secretly transported to Washington to avoid assassins on the eve of the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural in 1945, when he opted for a small, secure ceremony at the White House in the waning months of World War II.
Biden was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts; Harris by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the Supreme Court. Vice President Mike Pence, standing in for Trump, sat nearby as Lady Gaga, holding a golden microphone, sang the National Anthem accompanied by the US Marine Corps band. (AP)