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U.S. President Joe Biden signs documents as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, right, watches in the Presidents Room at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2021.

Pool/Getty Images

The sun having just reappeared, his hand on a hefty Bible, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. took the oath of office Wednesday in the same place, the temple of American democracy, which only a fortnight ago was ransacked by thousands of vandals, alt-right miscreants and sick boys pretending to be proud boys.

In the militarized zone that served as the setting for the inauguration of the 46th president, a sparse crowd in masked faces looked on, making the tableau all the more surreal. Outgoing president Donald Trump didn’t even show up, the first to snub his successor’s ceremony since Andrew Johnson did it in 1869. Tens of millions of his followers, many of whom don’t even accept the election verdict, no doubt approved.

All was in keeping with the state of the American union. It is a traumatized country. But following four years of unrelieved psychodrama, the goal of Joe Biden this day was to signal a new dawn. In that, it succeeded. It was a heartening and uplifting inaugural – a catharsis for the country, a day of deliverance.

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“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Mr. Biden said in a speech devoted to unity and ringing with sincerity and determination. “My whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

The speech was repetitive; it was heavy on platitudes, and it lacked a blueprint. But it was right for the moment, and it left a sense that Joe Biden was the man for the moment. With the river of history having led the country to a grievous juncture, the new President was setting a course to return it to the high seas.

A conciliator has replaced a bomb thrower. It was Donald Trump’s appalling defects of character, more than his policies, that burdened and broke the country. Joe Biden – a man of civility, a polar opposite of Mr. Trump in myriad respects – may well be the cure.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

In keeping with the unity pledge, the inauguration saw more racial and gender barriers torn down as California Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, became the first woman and first Black American to become Vice-President.

Black women mobilized the Democratic vote following the convulsions set off by a policeman’s knee-to-neck killing of George Floyd. With Ms. Harris, they look to have a pillar of racial justice in an executive mansion whose former occupant gave vent to white tribalism.

Mr. Trump’s absence from the swearing-in symbolized the menacing cleavages in the land. In the morning before departing for his Florida lair, he did pause to wish the new administration well, predicting it would do so.

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A president's inauguration speech is a way to express the vision for their administration. Donald Trump's 'American carnage' is a memorable moment from his 2017 speech, contrasting with Joe Biden's talk of unity in his address from the Capitol. The Globe and Mail

But he was typically unrepentant and boastful, saying to a small gathering at Andrews Air Force base that “what we’ve done is amazing by any standard.” He also said he would be back “in some form.”

As Mr. Trump still holds the allegiance of his base, even after his role in fomenting the Capitol riot, he may have such an opportunity. While his supporters were no doubt pained by his departure, the rest of the population was never so anxious for change or so relieved it happened. For four years, Mr. Trump had overwhelmed the conscience of the country while debasing its institutions, assaulting truth and dignity and maiming standards of decency. The end of all that had come.

All inauguration days are overcharged with optimism and hope. The reality sets in the following days, as it will for Joe Biden.

But if it is a country in need of empathy and of treating one another with dignity and respect, Mr. Biden won’t disappoint. He’s often told the story of his mother, Jean Finnegan, who told him, “Nobody is better than you and you are no better than anyone else.”

That kind of spirit, that sense of equality, has been so absent. But with the source of much of it gone and Joe Biden in the presidency, a new turn seemed possible.

In his address, Mr. Biden invoked Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday had preceded the inauguration on Monday. One of King’s rousing incantations was not only felt by Americans on that day, but with the demagogue gone, on Mr. Biden’s day also.

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“Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”

Catch up on key moments of President Joe Biden's inauguration speech where he called for unity and calm amidst racial injustice, white supremacy and a raging pandemic. The Globe and Mail
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this column incorrectly said Andrew Jackson snubbed his successor's inauguration in 1869. In fact, it was Andrew Johnson.

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