Joe Biden took his oath of office Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol well aware he has become the 46th president of the United States in a time of deep crisis. But he promised a return to something approaching normalcy in a speech that implicitly rejected his predecessor’s worst decisions and impulses.
“America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said in his address, a speech about uniting the nation after four years of Donald Trump’s governance. “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause — the cause of democracy.”
The speech echoed much of Biden’s rhetoric from his campaign and the presidential transition. It was replete with promises to tackle the environmental, economic, social and health crises rattling the United States, and to do his best to unite the nation and cool the country’s political temperature.
“Unity is the path forward” from an era of “exhausting outrage,” Biden said.
“Politics does not need to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” he promised, adding later: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue; rural versus urban; conservative versus liberal.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris participated in a ceremony that was meant to be like any other: Democrats and Republicans, after years of bitter partisanship, sat side by side, and Biden delivered a speech about unity. Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez performed.
Still, the strange times loomed large.
Now-former President Trump was not in attendance, breaking with long-standing tradition. Former Vice President Mike Pence did attend the event, as the representative of an administration that was perhaps even more isolated from Washington’s inner circle at the end than it was when Trump came into power.
Biden never mentioned his predecessor by name in the 21-minute address, though he implicitly condemned Trump’s penchant for lying and his ability to create an alternate universe of facts and realities for his supporters to inhabit.
“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” Biden said.
Biden indirectly linked those lies to the storming of the Capitol and the five people who died in the violence, and called on politicians in both parties to reject them.
“The recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” he said. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
The 78-year-old Biden, who became the oldest president in history when sworn in, delivered his speech to a National Mall emptied by the coronavirus pandemic and fortified by layers of fencing and thousands of National Guard members. Just two weeks ago, the same stage from which Biden swore his oath was being scaled by Trump-supporting insurrectionists, who broke into the Capitol building threatening to harm congressional leaders.
Instead of hosting massive crowds, the National Mall was filled with tens of thousands of American flags on Wednesday. The nearly 200,000 flags were intended to represent the Americans who were not allowed to attend the presidential inauguration due to both security and public health concerns. As of Inauguration Day, more than 400,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.
Biden’s remarks acknowledged the magnitude of crises he will have to address coming into office.
“We are entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” the president said, offering a silent prayer for those who have lost their lives to the pandemic. His team has already put forward a $1.9 trillion proposal to address the pandemic and dragging economy. Biden has a slate of executive orders for his first day in office, reversing many of Trump’s most well-known policies, such as stopping border wall construction, ending the travel ban and reentering the Paris climate accord.
“A raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism,” Biden said. “We face them all at once.”