WASHINGTON D.C.—On a crisp, cold day with occasional snow flurries and bursts of sunshine, Joe Biden was inaugurated the nation’s 46th president, calling the moment one of “history and hope.”
“This is America’s day,” Biden, 78, said at the beginning of his 21 minute inaugural address. “This is democracy’s day.”
The power shift unfolded peacefully as Biden and 49th Vice President Kamala Harris—the first woman, Black and Southeast Asian American to hold the nation’s second highest office—were sworn in on the west front of the U.S. Capitol building around noon on Wednesday, January 20.
While awash with pomp and circumstance, this inauguration looked very different. Chairs were spaced out in adherence to Covid-19 health protocols, guests wore masks, and the National Mall did not have any of the typical inauguration day crowds. Outside the Capitol complex, amid extremely tight security, there was a smattering of small protests. Before the ceremonies, a bomb threat was reportedly called in about the nearby Supreme Court, but that claim eventually proved to be false.
None of this overshadowed the optimistic mood of the inauguration, made all the more noteworthy in light of recent events. The Capitol building, built in part by an enslaved Black labor force, is the same place where on January 6, a mob insurrection erupted after former President Donald Trump held a defiant rally protesting his election loss. The resulting violent melee led to the deaths of six people, including two U.S. Capitol Police officers.
Biden did not mention Trump, who was recently impeached for a second time and skipped the inauguration (although former Vice President Mike Pence did attend) before departing for his home in Florida. However, the new president did speak of the attempt to desecrate democracy, which has yielded more than 100 arrests and charges.
“Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour my friends, democracy has prevailed,” said Biden.
The audience was decidedly smaller, yet still filled with family members, dignitaries and special guests, including former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush and former First Ladies Michelle Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, and bipartisan Senate and House leadership. Among those present were members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Dr. Carla Hayden, the first African American Librarian of Congress, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, an early Biden supporter who told ESSENCE the day was “amazing.”
While the ceremony was filled with powerful prayers and memorable performances by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, the celebration did not shy away from the reality of multiple crises impacting the country.
Nearly 400,000 people across the U.S. have lost their lives during the global coronavirus pandemic, and Biden asked for a moment of silence in their honor. In the background of the Capitol was a memorial to the lives lost across race, gender, age and socio-economic groups.
“It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed,” he said of Covid.
In wide ranging remarks that ran the gamut from foreign policy to climate change, Biden firmly denounced racism and hatred. “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” he said. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. …And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
To overcome these challenges, and “restore the soul and to secure the future of America,” requires unity, Biden urged. “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect.”
The new commander in chief also promised to be “a president for all Americans” who eschew lies over truth. “I give you my word,” he said. “I will always level with you.”
Biden, whose first wife and infant daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash, and whose eldest child Joseph ‘Beau’ Biden III died in 2015 of brain cancer, also eluded to loss and the need for Americans to have empathy.
“Here’s the thing about life, there is no accounting for what fate will deal you. There are some days when we need a hand. There are other days when we’re called on to lend one,” he said. “That is how we must be with one another. And, if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future.”
Harris, who was sworn in by Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor using Thurgood Marshall’s bible, generated applause and cheers from those assembled anytime her name was mentioned. That same enthusiasm was witnessed during a “Parade Across America” later in the day that was mostly virtual.
As President Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and their family took the traditional walk along Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the White House, Madam Vice President’s motorcade arrived. The license plate of her limo read, “49.”
Harris, a graduate of Howard University, was escorted by the HBCU’s Showtime Marching Band on her journey. The drumline, Flashy Flag Squad and Ooh La La Dancers braved the cold and put on an exciting show.
Vice President Harris exited her limo at one point with husband, Douglas Emhoff, and strolled the rest of the way on foot in stilettos. Her family met her there with hugs.
Holding hands with one of her great-nieces, Harris continued her walk, as a few bystanders in the small crowd shouted, “We love you.” She smiled and waved back.
A reporter called out: “How are you feeling?” “Great!” Harris responded.
As the music continued playing, she walked up the White House stairs, greeting the staff who applauded enthusiastically. With a military salute, Harris ascended the staircase. At the top, she turned and waved, then entered the building. History made.