Democrat Joe Biden, a fixture in Washington for nearly a half century, was sworn in Wednesday as the 46th U.S. president in a time-honored ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Biden, at 78, becomes the country’s oldest leader ever after serving 36 years as a U.S. senator and eight as vice president. He took the presidential oath of office, swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution and defend the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, on a chilly, wind-swept day.
Shortly before, Kamala Harris, a former U.S. senator from California, the country’s most populous state, was sworn in as vice president, becoming the highest ranking female official in more than two centuries of U.S. history. She is of Black and Indian heritage.
The swearing-in ceremonies were witnessed by three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – but the country’s outgoing chief executive, former President Donald Trump, ignored 152 years of tradition of presidents attending their successors’ swearing-in ceremonies and left Washington early for his Atlantic coastal mansion in Florida.
Also missing was the vast crowd of thousands of well-wishers that is normal at U.S. presidential inaugurations, both for security reasons and the fear that people jammed together on the National Mall in front of the Capitol would add to the soaring number of coronavirus infections in the U.S. Instead of people on the Mall, there were thousands of red, white and blue American flags whipping in the wind.
The usual throng of Washington dignitaries witnessing a presidential inauguration was sharply limited in the seats behind Biden and Harris, and their spouses — first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Chairs for the invited guests were widely spaced in line with coronavirus restrictions recommended by health authorities.
The ceremony was conducted amid extraordinary security, with tall metal fencing topped by razor wire surrounding the inauguration site after intelligence reports warned that Trump supporters angered by the congressionally certified outcome of the ex-president’s defeat could attempt to disrupt the ceremony.
The inauguration took place two weeks to the day after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to block lawmakers from certifying the Electoral College vote affirming that Biden defeated Trump in the November election.
A week ago, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting insurrection by urging thousands of his supporters at a January 6 rally to walk to the Capitol to confront lawmakers as they confirmed Biden’s victory. Trump, even though his four-year term has ended, is facing a Senate impeachment trial in the coming days.
In his inaugural address, Biden was expected to echo his call for American unity to fight the spread of the virus, ramp up vaccinations and repair the reeling economy. The pandemic has killed more than 400,000 Americans and caused economic hardship for many in the U.S.
“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal,” Biden said Tuesday as he and Harris led a remembrance event in front of the Lincoln Memorial for those who have died. Some 400 lights were illuminated around the Reflecting Pool.
“It’s important to do that as a nation — that’s why we’re here today. From sunset until dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we lost,” Biden said.
He later pledged to “get right to work” after being sworn in, saying, “We don’t have a second to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face as a nation.”
The Bidens and Harris and her husband began Wednesday attending a church service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. At Biden’s invitation, they were joined by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
By the time the service started, Trump had left the White House and was on his way to his retreat in Florida. Outgoing Vice President Mike Pence skipped the Trump sendoff but attended Biden’s inauguration with his wife Karen.
After the inauguration ceremony, Biden and Harris were scheduled to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington.
Biden, who served eight years as vice president under Obama, then planned to sign a number of executive orders and other presidential actions.
His transition team said those would include re-engaging with the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, reversing Trump’s ban on entry to the United States from several primarily Muslim countries, launching a government effort to advance racial equity in the United States, boosting protections for people who entered the country illegally as minors and challenging Americans to do “their patriotic duty” by wearing masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Wednesday evening, which is typically filled with extravagant balls on inauguration day, will instead feature a television special called “Celebrating America” during which both Biden and Harris will speak.
Others taking part in the event include musical artists Katy Perry, Luis Fonsi, Tim McGraw and Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with actors Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, chef José Andrés, and Kim Ng, the first woman to be general manager of a Major League Baseball team.
Despite the heightened security surrounding the inaugural events, Harris downplayed any personal security concerns Monday, saying she was “very much looking forward to being sworn in.”
“I will walk there, to that moment, proudly with my head up and my shoulders back,” she told reporters.
U.S. security officials said they took every precaution, including FBI security screening of the 25,000 members of the National Guard assigned to Washington to protect the event.
Twelve members of the National Guard were removed from inauguration duties Tuesday — at least two were found to have anti-government sympathies, The Washington Post reported. The Post said 10 were removed for reasons that did not involve extremism.