A SUBDUED START
Biden memorializes COVID-19 deaths before taking office
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden made a somber entrance to the nation’s capital Tuesday, ready to assume power as America reels from the coronavirus pandemic, high unemployment and grave concerns about more violence as he prepares to take the oath of office.
Biden flew into a military airbase just outside the capital Tuesday afternoon and then rode in a motorcade into fortress D.C. — a city that’s been flooded by some 25,000 National Guard troops guarding the Capitol, White House and National Mall, which are wrapped in a maze of barricades and tall fencing.
Inaugural organizers this week finished installing some 200,000 U.S., state and territorial flags on the National Mall, a display to represent the American people who couldn’t come to the inauguration, which is restricted under the tight security and COVID-19 restrictions.
His arrival coincided with the news that the U.S. death toll had surpassed 400,000 in the worst public health crisis in more than
a century — a crisis Biden will now be charged with controlling.
“To heal we must remember,” the incoming president told the nation at a sunset ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. Four hundred lights representing the pandemic’s victims were illuminated behind him around the monument’s Reflecting Pool.
“Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights into the darkness … and remember all who we lost,” Biden said.
The solemn moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration — typically a celebratory time in Washington when the nation marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power — was a measure of the vast loss for the nation.
During his brief remarks, Biden faced the larger-than life statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War president who served as more than 600,000 Americans died. As he turned to walk away at the conclusion of the vigil, he faced the black granite wall listing the 58,000-plus Americans who perished in Vietnam.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke of the collective anguish of the nation, a not-so-subtle admonishment of outgoing President Donald Trump, who has spoken sparingly about the pandemic in recent months.
“For many months we have grieved by ourselves,” said Harris, who will make history as the first woman to serve as vice president when she’s sworn in. “Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.”
Trump won’t attend Biden’s inauguration, the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago. The White House released a farewell video from Trump just as Biden landed at Joint Base Andrews.
Biden’s Delaware farewell was held at the National Guard/Reserve
Center named after his late son Beau Biden. Biden paid tribute to his home state.
“I’ll always be a proud son of the state of Delaware,” said Biden, who struggled to hold back tears as he spoke briefly.
After his remarks, he stopped and chatted with friends and well-wishers in the crowd, much like an Iowa rope line at the start of his long campaign journey.
Biden, who ran for the presidency as a cool head who could get things done, plans to issue a series of executive orders on Day One — including reversing President Donald Trump’s effort to leave the Paris climate accord, canceling his travel ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries and extending pandemic-era limits on evictions and student loan payments.
Out of the starting gate, Biden and his team are intent on moving quickly to speed up the distribution of vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass his $1.9 trillion virus relief package, which includes quick payments to many people and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Biden also plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill on the first day of his administration, hoping to provide an eightyear path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status. That would be a major reversal from the Trump administration’s tight immigration policies.
But Biden’s legislative ambitions could be tempered by the hard truth he faces on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the Senate and House. His hopes to press forward with an avalanche of legislation in his first 100 days could also be slowed by an impeachment trial of Trump.
As Biden made his way to Washington, five of his Cabinet picks were appearing on Tuesday before Senate committees to begin confirmation hearings. Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines were being questioned.
Yellen at her confirmation hearing urged lawmakers to embrace Biden’s virus relief package, arguing that “the smartest thing we can do is act big.”
Aides say Biden will use Wednesday’s inaugural address — which will be delivered in front of an unusually small in-person group because of virus protocols and security concerns and is expected to run 20 to 30 minutes — to call for American unity and offer an optimistic message that Americans can get past the dark moment by working together. To that end, he extended invitations to Congress’ top four Republican and Democratic leaders to attend Mass with him at St. Matthew’s Cathedral ahead of the inauguration ceremony.
As Biden presses bipartisanship, he’s also facing pressure from his left to go big right away, with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party calling on Senate Democrats to help by doing away with the chamber’s filibuster.
“We are glad Presidentelect Biden is ready to start addressing the desperate needs of the American people and put forth a COVID aid proposal which begins to address the many issues we face,” the progressive groups Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and New Deal Strategies wrote in a memo Monday. “We hope 10 Senate Republicans will support it, but are not holding our breath. The big question is, what happens when Republicans block Biden?”