WASHINGTON—“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. said around noon on Wednesday in his Inaugural Address, moments after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on steps of the Capitol in Washington. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
It was two weeks to the day — very nearly to the hour — from the moment insurrectionist rioters in the same spot had attacked the congressional building to try to prevent the certification of his election. Biden spoke of the storming of the Capitol by supporters of his predecessor, saying, “they tried to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen.”
As snow flurries intermittently fell in the sunshine on the National Mall, Biden’s first speech as president confronted “cascading crises” that have enveloped his country: COVID, insurrectionist violence, economic recession, civil unrest over racism and police violence. And alongside those, a climate emergency, a set of international relationships that are in tatters, a political climate polarized and bitterly mistrustful. Even as he was delivering the speech, he’d already announced 17 executive orders to be implemented on his first day to address many of those same topics. He wanted to act quickly, he said.
“We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities,” Biden said. “Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain. Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult, than the time we’re in now.”
Looking out from the podium, the new president could see the evidence of the challenges he outlined. Immediately in front of him were the dignitaries, former presidents and military band on the lawn, all of them wearing COVID masks. Beyond them were lines of soldiers in battle dress standing in front of high fencing, protecting the locked-down capital from the threat of violent disruption. And then, on the lawns stretching out to the Washington Monument where crowds of Americans typically gather for such events, were thousands of flags, flapping in the cold wind.
In what he said was his first official act as president, Biden led those assembled in a moment of silence to memorialize the more than 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 in the 365 days since the first case had been diagnosed in the U.S.
His speech, and the setting of it, made clear that Biden takes office at a difficult time in the country’s history. And history was much on the minds of those in attendance. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, acting as master of Ceremonies, introduced the day’s events by noting that this 59th Presidential inauguration day continued a tradition that owed much to the 244 years of democratic history in her country — one which she said the past few weeks has shown cannot be taken for granted. “This is the day when our democracy picks itself up, brushes off the dust and does what America always does — goes forward as a nation,” she said.
Indeed, history remembers these inaugural moments as defining. Abraham Lincoln calling on the nation’s “better angels.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” John F. Kennedy saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Klobuchar recalled that Lincoln had given his famous address before a Capitol still under construction, and that he’d insisted the work on the building continue through the Civil War. “If the people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign the union is going on,” she quoted him saying. “And it did,” she added. “And it will.”
And in a moment that recalled that prior era of American strife and division, Biden in his speech said, “We must end this uncivil war.” Citing the words of Lincoln himself, Biden pledged, “My whole soul is in it.”
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Unity, he said, was the key. He acknowledged such talk is common, and may appear foolish. But he said that during the Civil War, and in the world wars, the Great Depression, and the other moments of greatest trial since then in U.S. history, it had always come through. “In each of these moments, enough of us — enough of us — have come together to carry all of us forward. We can do that now.”
Biden said, “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together. And so today, at this time, in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again.”
And he promised if his words were heeded, future historians would remember it. “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us, ‘They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land. My fellow Americans, I close the day where I began, with a sacred oath before God and all of you. I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America.”
Future historians examining the images of the day will note the COVID masks and the Mall empty of people. They will no doubt also note Kamala Harris’ swearing in as the first woman to serve as vice president, and the first Black person and person of South Asian descent, too. They’ll note her husband Doug Emhoff emerging as the first second gentleman. They’ll notice that the outgoing president, Donald Trump, did not attend the ceremony of his successor, the first time since 1869 that a living president has not done so.
What those historians will note about Lady Gaga’s stirring rendition of the national anthem, or about Jennifer Lopez’s singing of Woody Guthrie’s protest anthem “This Land is Your Land,” or of Garth Brooks emerging with a black cowboy hat to sing “Amazing Grace,” is hard to know.
But it is a fair guess they might recall this inauguration as the day most of the world met 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman.
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one,” Gorman said in an inaugural poem she said she finished writing on the night of Jan. 6, after the riot at the Capitol had just subsided. “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. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated,” she said.
Her poem captured the mood of Washington at a moment of American crisis — facing a dark time too fully aware of significant threats, but for a moment hopeful that, as Biden said, the country might be ready to start to meet the moment.
“We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful,” Gorman said. “When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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