Joe Biden called on his country to set aside its divisions and confront the crises of COVID-19, climate change and racism as he was inaugurated the 46th U.S. President.
Standing on the western steps of the Capitol Building, where just two weeks earlier an armed mob tried to stop the certification of his election victory, Mr. Biden on Wednesday said the U.S. must end its “uncivil war” as he sought to heal the wounds of a society wrought by four years of scorched-earth political and cultural confrontation.
And the new President delivered a message of inclusion, starting with the swearing-in of Vice-President Kamala Harris, the first woman, Black person and Asian-American to hold the office.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Mr. Biden declared. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
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Determined to slam the door shut on the era of Donald Trump, the President swiftly moved to roll back his predecessor’s legacy. At the White House later Wednesday, Mr. Biden signed 15 executive actions, which included bringing the country back into the Paris climate accord, ending construction on the wall along the Mexican border and restoring legal protections for some undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Biden also cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas and Illinois, rescinding the presidential permit granted to the project by Mr. Trump. The President will speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, Mr. Biden’s first call with a foreign leader after taking office.
The inauguration unfolded amid unprecedented security, meant to guard against both the pandemic and a repeat of the siege on Jan. 6. Only a sparse crowd of masked and physically distanced dignitaries and guests attended the ceremony.
The Capitol and much of downtown Washington was closed off with 3.7-metre-high fencing and patrolled by 25,000 soldiers. Where hundreds of thousands of spectators would normally gather on the National Mall, the space was instead filled with row upon row of small U.S. flags.
Mr. Trump became the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1869 not to attend his successor’s inauguration. Instead, he left the capital for his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, several hours before Mr. Biden took office.
“We will be back in some form,” Mr. Trump said at Joint Base Andrews before the song YMCA serenaded him onto Air Force One. “So, have a good life.”
Mr. Biden inherits a country in upheaval. The pandemic has killed more than 400,000 Americans, as many as those who died in the Second World War. Last year saw the largest movement for racial justice since the civil-rights era of the 1960s. Tens of millions of Mr. Trump’s followers believe the former president’s claims, enabled by some Republican members of Congress, that the election was rigged.
“We face an attack on our democracy and on truth. A raging virus, growing inequality, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world,” Mr. Biden said in his speech. “We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
He vowed to be “a President for all Americans,” and asked people who didn’t vote for him to “take a measure of me and my heart.” To other countries, he said he would “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” It was a sharp contrast with Mr. Trump’s inauguration four years ago, in which he spoke darkly of “American carnage” and promised an “America first” agenda.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Mr. Biden said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”
Hours after taking office, Mr. Biden fulfilled several campaign promises with executive orders. These included ending Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, mandating the wearing of masks on federal property, freezing evictions and student-loan repayments during the pandemic, reversing his travel ban on several mostly majority Muslim countries and obliging federal government departments to do more to fight racism.
Mr. Biden is planning to send major legislation to Congress in the coming days, including a COVID-19 relief package and an immigration reform bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented people.
One thing Mr. Biden will not be doing is weighing in on the fate of his predecessor. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the President will leave it up to the Senate to determine whether to convict Mr. Trump for inciting the Capitol riot. If convicted, Mr. Trump could be barred from ever holding federal office again.
Mr. Biden’s inauguration drew on a range of performers meant to show the country’s diversity. Jennifer Lopez performed This Land is Your Land, the call for inclusion written by activist folk singer Woody Guthrie. Lady Gaga sang the national anthem; Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace; and Amanda Gorman, at 22, became the youngest poet to recite at a presidential inauguration.
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded,” she read. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”
Despite fears of armed attacks by some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, none materialized. Along the perimeter of the security zone, groups of well-wishers gathered in hopes of catching a glimpse of the country’s new leaders.
“It’s nice to have our first woman as Vice-President,” said Michael A. Jordan, a 35-year-old Washington restaurant worker, as he sat near the fence lining Pennsylvania Avenue. “And it’s nice to have someone who actually sounds like a President.”
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A 78-year-old career politician, Mr. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate before serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice-president. He must now balance his moderate instincts with calls from his Democratic Party’s left to pass sweeping changes. The President himself has promised big-ticket items, including trillions of dollars in green infrastructure spending and “public-option” health care, which would create a government-run health-insurance system to compete with private plans.
Born in Scranton, Pa., Mr. Biden has spent most of his life in Delaware and harboured presidential ambitions for decades.
Robert Markel, a high-school buddy of the President’s, said he remembered discussing career plans with Mr. Biden and their friends one day in Grade 12 as they hung out at Mr. Biden’s family home. While the rest of the group wasn’t sure what they wanted to do in the future, Mr. Biden acknowledged he was thinking about getting into politics.
“One of our friends said ‘you probably want to be president, don’t you?’ and Biden said, ‘yeah, I do,’” recounted Mr. Markel, who served as an Electoral College member from Massachusetts.
At his inauguration, Mr. Biden reached back into history to explain the scope of his ambitions. He cited Abraham Lincoln’s words on signing the Emancipation Proclamation: “My whole soul is in this.”
“My whole soul is in it today,” Mr. Biden said. “Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.”
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