The Joe Biden era dawned behind razor wire and armed guards Wednesday, the 46th U.S. president paying tribute to democracy’s strength and warning of the dangers of the “uncivil wars” stoked by his predecessor.
With Donald Trump in Florida, Biden took the oath in front of the iconic Capitol Building, overrun by rioters just two weeks earlier.
Biden called it “democracy’s day — a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” saying the chaos of Jan. 6 has reminded Americans not to take their country for granted.
The new president urged the partisan forces fanning the flames of division to focus on binding the country’s wounds and bringing Americans together.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” Biden said.
The twin dangers of COVID-19 and continued civil discord conspired to make Wednesday’s inauguration a physically distanced, online-only spectacle, one as remarkable for the peril it posed to Biden as the disinterest it inspired in Trump.
Some 25,000 National Guard members stood sentry at checkpoints and walked fenced-off perimeters, some of their ranks reassigned amid fears of an insider attack against the new president.
The old one, meanwhile, couldn’t be bothered to linger.
The ensuing split-screen sendoff showed Trump aboard Air Force 1 for a final time, the strains of “My Way” blasting from MAGA speakers, as Biden emerged from Blair House to go to church.
Sue Bell, who braved a chill wind outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral with her dog, said the security presence offered a reminder of the country’s fragility.
“It makes you realize what we take for granted — that our democracy is usually a smooth transition, and that our security is always kind of expected,” Bell said.
“In some ways, I think we’ll look back at this and shake our heads like it’s a bad dream, but in other ways, I think it’s really going to make us appreciate more what we have.”
Gayle Smith, who worked with Biden for eight years as an Obama administration National Security Council expert, said the new president’s references to respect, dignity and equality showcase his character.
“I think all Canadians can count on that again.”
Biden pledged unity and healed relations, noting the one-year COVID-19 American death toll of 400,000 matched the country’s losses in the entire Second World War. He led a silent 10-second moment of prayer in their memory.
He evoked the Civil War, the Great Depression and the 9/11 attacks, saying the U.S. would overcome its current differences and prevail through “a dark winter” confronting the pandemic as “one nation.”
“This is our historic moment,” Biden said, adding: “Unity is our path forward.”
Former California senator Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first Black person and the first of South Asian descent to be sworn in as U.S. vice-president. She was accompanied to the ceremony by Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Police officer who helped defend the U.S. Capitol against the attack two weeks ago.
A marching band provided the backdrop for a festive atmosphere as images of outgoing vice-president Mike Pence interacting with former U.S. presidents were broadcast worldwide. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and their families mingled while wearing masks. Lady Gaga sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while Jennifer Lopez offered up a stirring medley of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America The Beautiful.”
Trump avoided Biden entirely. It’s believed to be the first time in 152 years that a sitting president has opted to skip out on the inauguration of his successor.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he looked forward to working with the new administration to spur economic recovery, fight climate change, and contribute to “democracy, peace, and security at home and around the world.”
Katherine Brucker, the acting U.S. ambassador to Canada, said in a statement she welcomed working with Canada on health, border, defence, security and economic issues.
The fact that safety was a question at a U.S. presidential inauguration is remarkable. But the siege at the Capitol changed everything — including confidence in the National Guard, which resulted in the removal of 12 from their D.C. assignment.
Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., said all of it provides a pointed reminder that democracies shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“We should all celebrate our democracies, often and heartily — in my view, I think we take them for granted a little more than we should sometimes,” said Hillman, among the comparatively small number of people attending the ceremony.
The fact that Congress persevered and ultimately finished the job of certifying Biden’s election win was a testament to the country’s enduring spirit, she said.
“No matter what the challenges … people are going to make this work because it is fundamental to their democracy. So, I think you can turn it around and see it as a real testament to the strength of institutions that have been severely tested.”
Hillman may already face a severe test of her own because Biden is expected to sign an executive order rescinding Trump’s presidential permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The transition team confirmed that plan Tuesday, promising to revoke, revise or replace any orders Trump signed “that do not serve the U.S. national interest, including revoking the presidential permit granted to the Keystone XL pipeline.”
Advocates for the project have been clinging to hope that the ensuing outcry, including from the Alberta government, will prompt the Biden team to have second thoughts.
“A robust, mature, and close relationship is one where you can have disagreements, and you can have them in the strongest possible terms, and you can move on, and not let those disagreements derail the entire relationship,” said Hillman.
— With files from The Associated Press
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
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