Surrounded by thousands of flags and armed troops in the nation’s capital, Joseph “Joe” Biden took his oath of office as the 46th president of the United States, and Kamala Harris as the 49th vice president.
Inauguration Day in Washington, DC is normally an all-out celebration with millions of people attending (Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration was attended by nearly two million people), and storeowners make a killing on merchandise featuring the incoming administration.
The celebration is as close to a royal wedding that Americans have—and as optimistic and happy. But not this time.
Biden’s inauguration is unprecedented for many reasons—the presence of 25,000 National Guard troops due to threats of domestic terrorism, an empty National Mall, a DC lockdown, and his predecessor Donald Trump’s inciting insurrection on Jan. 6 to prevent Congress from certifying the official election results.
President Joe Biden was sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman vice president and woman of color, was sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina member of the Supreme Court.
In his speech, Biden reiterated his vow that he would be president to all Americans, not just those who voted for him. And to end the “un-civil war” that pits blue against red, Democrats against Republicans.
“On this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause. To fight the foes we face—anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again a leading force for good in the world.”
Unity not division, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us.
“We've learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, democracy has prevailed. On this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the capital’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.
“Unity not division, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing. greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story we tell.”
Harris took her oath on the Bible that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice in the US Supreme Court (1967 to 1991). Marshall was a civil rights activist who argued before the Supreme Court in the 1954 landmark case that ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
All three branches of the US government were represented at the inauguraton, as well as former presidents and first ladies, and vice presidents including Barack and Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Vice Presidents Mike Pence and Dan Quayle.
Flags for those who couldn’t be there
Biden won the presidency with 306 Electoral College votes over Trump’s 232 electoral votes—the same 74-vote margin that Trump won in 2016 over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
In both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump lost the popular vote—by three million and seven million, respectively. Trump is also the only US president to be impeached twice—and one of a handful not elected to a second term.
The violent siege of the US Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters and the pandemic ensured a small inauguration crowd.
The National Mall was filled with thousands of American flags representing people who couldn’t be there because of threats of violence, while the 400 lights lining the reflecting pool commemorate the 400,000 Americans that have died from COVID-19. Thousands of white triangle flags also filled the area, which people had been leaving since September 2020.
Security in Washington, DC was very tight with bridges and roads closed days before the event, as US intelligence said there was chatter of Trump supporters and white extremists planning to dress as National Guards to attack the inauguration.
Twelve members of the National Guard were removed from inauguration duty on Jan. 19 following vetting by the FBI.
Trump sendoff a bust
Hours before Biden’s inauguration, Donald Trump took his last flight as president on Marine One for Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where Air Force One was waiting to whisk him and his family to Florida. Trump plans to stay at his resort Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
Days before, Trump and his team sent out invitations to what he envisioned to be a huge military-style sendoff. The invitations from the White House specified that invitees could bring up to five guests with them.
No VIPs turned up at the sendoff. Not even Vice President Mike Pence or Trump’s “enablers” for the past four years in the Senate and Congress.
During his speech, Trump thanked his children and staff, saying no one could have worked harder than they did. He also claimed credit for the vaccines that were made in nine months—“not 10 years, not five years.”
News commentators pointed out that Trump had downplayed the pandemic, the vaccines were developed by scientists in private corporations, and neither were they funded by Operation Warp Speed (though Mike Pence made a similar false claim when Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine was first released, even if research was partly funded by Germany).
The Bidens, who were supposed to leave Blair House 20 minutes earlier to attend a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, waited until Trump had finished his speech before proceeding.
The day before his inauguration, Biden bid an emotional farewell to his home state of Delaware prior to leaving for DC.
When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.
At the National Guard Center named after his son Beau Biden, he paraphrased Irish poet and novelist James Joyce, saying, “When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”
Biden wanted to travel by train to DC as he and then President-elect Barack Obama did for their 2009 inauguration but security concerns prevented that.
“Twelve years ago, I was waiting at the train station in Wilmington for a Black man to pick me up on our way to Washington, where we were sworn in as president and vice president of the United States of America,” he said. “And here we are today, my family and I, about to return again to Washington, to meet a Black woman of South Asian descent, to be sworn in as president and vice president of the United States...That's America. That's Delaware.”
He teared up when he talked about his son Beau, a major in the Delaware National Guard, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Several times, he paused to compose himself.
“I only have one regret—he’s not here,” Biden said. “Because we should be introducing him as president.” (Watch video here.)
In the evening, Biden and Harris with their spouses, Dr. Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff, went to the COVID Memorial where 400 lights lined the reflecting pool to commemorate the 400,000 COVID deaths in the US.
During his moving speech, Biden said, “To heal, we must remember. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”
One of the qualities Biden has displayed over the decades is empathy. He has experienced staggering tragedies in his family—as a young senator he lost his first wife and daughter to a car accident, and five years ago his son Beau.
This may be the quality that can help him unite a fractured nation.