The Mercury News
‘DEMOCRACY HAS PREVAILED’ BIDEN, HARRIS SWORN IN, FACE A CASCADE OF NATIONAL CRISES
WASHINGTON » Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, taking office at a moment of profound economic, health and political crises with a promise to seek unity after a tumultuous four years that tore at the fabric of American society. ¶ With his hand on a 5-inch-thick Bible that has been in his family for 128 years, Biden recited the 35-word oath of office swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” in a ceremony administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, completing the process at 11:49 a.m., 11 minutes before the authority of the presidency formally changes hands.
The ritual transfer of power came shortly after Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, her hand on a Bible that once belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights icon and Supreme Court justice. Harris’ ascension made her the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history and the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
In his inaugural address, Biden declared that “democracy has prevailed” after a test of the system by a defeated president, Donald Trump, who sought to overturn the results of an election and then encouraged a mob that stormed the Capitol two weeks ago to block the final count. But he called for Americans to put aside their deep and dark divisions to come together to confront the coronavirus pandemic, economic troubles and the scourge of racism.
“We must end this uncivil war — red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said in the 21-minute address that blended soaring themes with folksy touches. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment.”
Biden used the word “unity” repeatedly, saying that he knew it “can sound to some like a foolish fantasy” but insisting that Americans had emerged from previous moments of polarization and can do so again.
“We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” he said. “For 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.”
The ceremony on a chilly, breezy but sunny day with a brief smattering of snowflakes brought to a close the stormy and divisive four-year Trump presidency. In characteristic fashion, Trump once again defied tradition by leaving Washington hours before the swearing-in of his successor rather than face the reality of his own election defeat, although Mike Pence, his vice president, did attend.
Trump flew to Florida, where he plans to live at his Mar-a-Lago estate. But within days, the Senate will open the former president’s impeachment trial on the charge that he incited an insurrection by encouraging the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to stop the formal counting of the Electoral College votes ratifying his defeat.
The sight of the nation’s newly installed president and vice president on the same West Front of the Capitol occupied just two weeks ago by the marauding pro Trump crowd underscored how surreal the day was. Unlike most inaugurals suffused with joy and a sense of fresh beginning, the festivities on the nation’s 59th Inauguration Day served to illustrate America’s troubles.
Amid fear of further violence, Washington has been transformed into an armed camp, with some 25,000 National Guard troops joining thousands of police officers and a wide swath of downtown blocked off. With the pandemic still raging, Americans were told to stay away, leading to the eerie spectacle of a new president addressing a largely empty National Mall, filled not with people but with flags meant to represent the absent crowd.
Many of the usual inaugural customs were scrapped because of the virus, including a lunch with congressional leaders in Statuary Hall, the boisterous parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and the gala evening balls where the new president and his wife are typically expected to dance.
Instead, Biden reviewed military units on the East Front of the Capitol and then went to the White House escorted by marching bands from all branches of the military as well as university drum lines from the University of Delaware and Howard University, the alma maters of the new president and vice president, respectively. After that, a virtual “Parade Across America” featured performances livestreamed from 56 states and territories.
To symbolize the theme of national unity that Biden sought to project, he was joined by three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery before the parade. Instead of the formal dances, the new first and second couples took part in a 90-minute televised evening program hosted by actor Tom Hanks.
Biden, who spent Tuesday night at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters, began his public day at 8:50 a.m. when he departed for a service at Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle with his wife, Jill Biden, along with Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. Joining them were congressional leaders of both parties.
That too was a change in tradition, as most new presidents before taking the oath worship at St. John’s Church, the Episcopal parish across Lafayette Square from the White House. But St. Matthew has its own presidential history as the site of John F. Kennedy’s funeral.