Biden prepares to take the helm of a nation in crisis
Joe Biden swears the oath of office shortly before noon ET on Wednesday to become the 46th president of the United States, taking the helm of a deeply divided nation and inheriting a confluence of crises arguably greater than any faced by his predecessors.
The very ceremony in which presidential power will be transferred, a hallowed American democratic tradition, will serve as a jarring reminder of the challenges Biden faces. The inauguration will unfold at a U.S. Capitol battered by an insurrectionist siege exactly two weeks ago, encircled by security forces evocative of those in a war zone and devoid of crowds because of the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans were exhorted to stay at home to prevent further spread of a virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the U.S. In Washington, Biden will look out over a capital dotted with empty storefronts that attest to the pandemic’s economic toll and where summer protests laid bare the nation’s renewed reckoning with racial injustice.
He will not be applauded — or likely even acknowledged — by his predecessor.
Flouting tradition, President Trump is planning to depart Washington on Wednesday morning ahead of the inauguration rather than accompany his successor to the Capitol. Trump, who faces a second impeachment trial, stoked anger among his supporters with the false claim that Biden’s win was illegitimate.
Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanizing a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. On his first day, Biden will take a series of executive actions — on the pandemic, climate, immigration and more — to undo the heart of Trump’s agenda.
Biden, a Democrat, takes office with the bonds of the republic frayed and the nation reeling from challenges that rival those confronted by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Biden will face a series of urgent, burning crises like we have not seen before, and they all have to be solved at once. It is very hard to find a parallel in history,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “I think we have been through a near-death experience as a democracy. Americans who will watch the new president be sworn in are now acutely aware of how fragile our democracy is and how much it needs to be protected.”
Biden comes to the nation’s highest office with a well of empathy and resolve born of personal tragedy as well as a depth of experience forged from more than four decades in Washington. At 78, he is the oldest person to be elected president.
More history will be made at his side, as Kamala Harris becomes the first woman to be vice president. The former senator from California is also the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency and will become the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in government.
American presidential inaugurations have often come against the backdrop of momentous events — the Civil War, the Great Depression, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights era. For Biden, the burdens are great.
The two will be sworn in at an inauguration ceremony with few parallels in history.
Tens of thousands of troops are on the streets to provide security 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.
The tense atmosphere evoked the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln, who was secretly transported to Washington to avoid assassins on the eve of the Civil War, and Roosevelt’s inaugural in 1945 at a small, secure White House ceremony in the waning months of World War II.
Despite security warnings, Biden declined to move the ceremony indoors and instead will address a small, socially distanced crowd on the West Front of the Capitol. Some of the traditional trappings of the quadrennial ceremony will remain.
Several key Obama administration policies survived Trump’s four-year onslaught, easing Biden’s way as he assumes office.
The day will begin with a reach across the aisle after four years of bitter partisan battles under Trump. Biden invited Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, to join him at a morning Mass, along with New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the Democratic leaders.
Once at the Capitol, Biden will be administered the oath by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; Harris will be sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The theme of Biden’s approximately 30-minute speech will be “America United,” and aides said it would be a call to set aside differences during a moment of national trial.
Biden will then oversee a “Pass in Review,” a military tradition that honors the peaceful transfer of power to a new commander in chief. Then, Biden, Harris and their spouses will be joined by a bipartisan trio of former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Ceremony.
Later, Biden will join the end of a slimmed-down inaugural parade as he moves into the White House. Because of the pandemic, much of this year’s parade will be a virtual affair featuring performances from around the nation.
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In the evening, in lieu of the traditional glitzy balls that welcome a new president to Washington, Biden will take part in a televised concert that also marks the return of A-list celebrities to the White House orbit after many of them eschewed Trump. Among those in the lineup: Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem at the Capitol earlier in the day.
Trump will be the first president in more than a century to skip the inauguration of his successor. He planned his own farewell celebration at nearby Joint Base Andrews before boarding Air Force One for the final time as president for the flight to his Florida estate.
Trump will nonetheless shadow Biden’s first days in office.
Trump’s second impeachment trial could start as early as this week. That could test the ability of the Senate, poised to come under Democratic control, to balance impeachment proceedings with confirmation hearings and votes on Biden’s Cabinet choices.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won big in a historic election and face unprecedented problems and possibilities; let’s keep our focus on what they do, not how the former president is feeling about it.
Biden is eager to go big early in his administration, with an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days that includes speeding up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and passing a $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package. On Wednesday, he will also send an immigration proposal to Capitol Hill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.
He has also planned a 10-day blitz of executive orders on matters that don’t require congressional approval, a mix of substantive and symbolic steps to unwind the Trump years. Among the planned steps: rescinding travel restrictions on people from several predominantly Muslim countries; rejoining the Paris climate accord; issuing a mask mandate for anyone on federal property; and ordering agencies to figure out how to reunite children separated from their families after crossing the border.
The difficulties he faces are immense, to be mentioned in the same breath as Roosevelt taking office during the Great Depression or Obama, under whom Biden served eight years as vice president, during the global financial meltdown. The solution may be similar.
“There is now, as there was in 1933, a vital need for leadership,” said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “for every national resource to be brought to bear to get the virus under control, to help produce and distribute the vaccines, to get vaccines into the arms of the people, to spur the economy to recover and get people back to work and to school.”
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