Biden’s inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear
Two weeks to the day after the U.S. Capitol was besieged by a violent mob aiming to prevent his ascension, Joe Biden was sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president in an inaugural ritual — unlike any before it — that seemed to reflect all the conflicting hopes and tensions of the country itself.
Gazing up at the Capitol dome from the west lawn, it was all pomp and ceremony, flags and former presidents who paraded out to the playing of the Marine Band.
But to turn 180 degrees revealed a startling scene of vacancy and militarization, where service members guarded a National Mall empty but for 200,000 flags whipping in the chilly winter wind. They were planted there to represent the crowd that couldn’t attend because of the surging coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. alone.
The day’s goal was achieved — a peaceful transfer of power after a deadly attack on the brightest symbol of the nation’s democracy — but it happened only after locking down Washington with fleets of military vehicles; an imposing matrix of 8-foot fencing topped with coils of barbed wire; and tens of thousands of National Guard troops, some of them bearing M4 rifles.
The theme was national reconciliation — “Without unity, there is no peace,” Biden said from the flag-draped dais — but he was speaking to a crowd that included Trump loyalists who just days earlier had led the floor fight to overturn his election victory.
There was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the former Freedom Caucus leader who spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally after the November election, along with the top two House GOP leaders, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Steve Scalise (La.). And Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — 2024 hopefuls who formally objected to election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania — watched Biden from the stands above as he raised his right hand and took the oath of office.
The political dissonance was not overlooked by some Biden supporters, who cheered his arrival while warning of high hurdles as the country seeks to mend the deep partisan fractures left in former President Trump’s wake.
“We’ve got people who are here who voted for this day never to happen,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “We have some distance to travel in the institution and in the country to overcome that.”
Overall, however, there was a sense — at least rhetorically — that the nation’s capital was ready for a return to normalcy after four chaotic years under Trump. And a who’s who of the Washington establishment, those who condemned Trump’s push to block Biden’s victory, could be seen everywhere you turned. Trump’s 2016 nemesis, Hillary Clinton, was there, as was his predecessor, Barack Obama. Clinton purposely wore purple, a symbolic color of unity meant to reflect the theme of Biden’s address.
John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who had periodically come under fire from Trump, was there to administer the oath.
Two of Trump’s loudest GOP critics, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and former Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), were on hand, as were a pair of GOP leaders, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and former Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), both of whom had forcefully warned against Trump’s futile ploy just before the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.
“Our institutions were tested this year and our institutions passed the test,” Ryan told reporters. “I’m here out of respect for the peaceful transfer of power and for the institutions. Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States and I’m here to honor this process.”
Many in attendance, particularly Democrats, said Biden’s speech was tailor-made for the moment. The 46th president never uttered Trump’s name, but he denounced the burn-all-bridges partisan politics that came to define Trumpism.
“Night and day,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Biden’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, told The Hill after the ceremony. “He means it. It wasn’t just words; it’s what’s in his heart. Today is a good day.”
“He criticized Trump but he didn’t mention him; it wasn’t overt,” added former Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was in attendance. “We’re heading in the right direction.”
Yet Biden was not calling for bipartisan cooperation on individual policy proposals. His was a much broader plea to turn down the temperature for the sake of preserving the country’s centuries-old experiment in democracy — a sharp contrast to Trump’s speech four years ago in which he warned of the “American carnage” wrought by liberal policies.
“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,” Biden said. “And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
It was an allusion to the violent mob attack on the Capitol just two weeks ago.
Before the Capitol was ransacked, Trump had repeated his false claims the election had been stolen from him to a crowd he’d encouraged to march on the very spot where Biden two weeks later pledged to preserve, protect and defend America’s Constitution.
The scars of the Jan. 6 assault, both physical and emotional, were still visible — on the building and the faces of lawmakers and staffers who survived the harrowing attack that left five people dead, including a police officer. Behind Biden, some windows in the Capitol remained broken and fresh paint had been applied to the beige risers surrounding the inaugural platform.
“It’s hard to look at today outside of the context of the last couple of weeks,” Kildee said. “It’s therapeutic in a lot of ways.”
Whether Biden can build the bridges he’s hoping to — both in Congress and the country beyond — remains an open question. Senate leaders have still not reached a power-sharing agreement to govern the next two years, given the 50-50 split between the parties. And Republican lawmakers are already warning that they’re ready to fight hard against Biden’s policy agenda if, in their view, it strays too far to the left.
“As long as we’re focused on getting people back to work, and getting the vaccine out quickly — if he’ll come out with that — I think we can all get on board and move forward,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “If he comes out with a lot of far-left policies, we won’t be able to support him and it’ll be unfortunate.”
Biden’s No. 1 legislative priority will be a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that calls for a new round of stimulus checks, a $15 federal minimum wage and billions more for cities and states.
Signs of the pandemic were everywhere on Wednesday: All of the attendees, including Biden and Vice President Harris, wore masks when not speaking. Staff passed out free hand sanitizer. And guests were seated socially distanced from each other.
Just a day earlier, the nation recorded its 400,000th COVID-19 victim.
“It’s been four years in the darkness, and we have so much work ahead of us,” said Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat. “But today’s an optimistic and hopeful beginning.”