Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on the steps of the US Capitol on Wednesday, surrounded by past presidents, members of Congress, and his family.
It was an unusual inauguration in many respects.
The National Mall that is usually teeming with spectators was mostly empty due to heightened security measures put in place following the recent insurrection and Covid-19 restrictions. In their place, 200,000 small flags were planted on the Mall to represent the number of Americans who couldn’t attend the inauguration. On the steps of the Capitol, dignitaries and lawmakers wore masks and were spaced six feet apart.
Biden took the oath of office and gave his address on the steps of a building that still bears the scars of a violent insurrection that took place two weeks ago, as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump invaded the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the legislative process of confirming Biden’s electoral votes. The violence in the Capitol claimed at least five lives, including two US Capitol Police officers.
And for the first time in 152 years, the outgoing president was not there to witness the incoming president take the oath of office. Trump had already departed for his home in Florida by the time the inauguration started; former Vice President Mike Pence was there instead.
Taking the oath of office, Biden stresses unity
With his hand placed on his family’s Bible, President Biden took the oath of office at 11:50 am on Wednesday — about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. He officially became the 46th president at noon, in the middle of his inaugural address.
Speaking to the American public, Biden pleaded with a deeply and bitterly divided country to unite.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Biden said. “A day of history and hope — of renewal and resolve. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious; democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
The new president promised to be a president for all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him. Calling for unity has been a hallmark of Biden’s campaign from the beginning, but it has never been so urgent. He will face an evenly divided US Senate, and lead a country not completely convinced that his presidency is legitimate: A recent NBC News poll found that 74 percent of Republican voters don’t believe Biden won the 2020 election legitimately.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Inauguration Day was full of historic firsts
Beyond the usual pomp of the ceremony, Inauguration Day was historic. Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman vice president, as well as the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent to take the post.
At least one Inauguration Day speaker made history as well: Amanda Gorman, who at 22 years old became the youngest inaugural poet in American history. Dressed in yellow, Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” her words flowing in the cold winter air. Gorman recently told NPR she finished her poem on the night of the Capitol attack.
“In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us,” Gorman read.
Inauguration attendees also watched a benediction by Rev. Silvester Beaman, and musical performances from Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks, and Jennifer Lopez on the steps of the Capitol. Lady Gaga, dressed in a flowing red and navy gown, performed the national anthem. Lopez, singing “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land,” capped off her performance by singing her signature line, “Let’s get loud!” at the end.
Past presidents from both parties made an appearance — but not Trump
Wednesday morning saw a parade of past presidents and current congressional leaders arrive ahead of President Joe Biden’s swearing-in and inaugural address.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all attended, arm in arm with former first ladies Hillary Clinton (the 2016 Democratic nominee for president), Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.
The one person missing was outgoing President Donald Trump, who chose not to attend Biden’s inauguration. Trump broke with 152 years of tradition by skipping Biden’s swearing-in. The last president to do so was Andrew Johnson in 1869. (Like Trump, Johnson was also impeached.)
Despite Trump’s lack of attendance, Biden’s inauguration was still a bipartisan affair. Former Vice President Mike Pence represented the Trump administration, and congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, all attended.
One of the most notable appearances was from US Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who single-handedly held off a violent mob of insurrectionists, leading them away from the US Senate chamber two weeks ago. Goodman — who was recently promoted to the acting deputy Senate sergeant at arms — escorted Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, to their seats.
Trump departs Washington
Ahead of the inauguration, Trump officially left Washington, DC, a city he’s had a tumultuous relationship with for the past four years. Trump departed from the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Wednesday morning and is headed to his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form,” he told supporters before boarding Air Force One. Trump’s departure wasn’t without some form of festivities — the Village People song “YMCA,” a mainstay of Trump rallies, played in the background.
Even though Trump is gone, his presence will still be felt on Capitol Hill. Beyond the sway he maintains within the Republican Party, Trump will likely soon face his second impeachment trial in the US Senate.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of former first lady Laura Bush.