America’s first ‘virtual’ inauguration ushers in a transformed era

At a swearing-in with a small socially-distanced audience, Biden says "the cause of democracy" has triumphed and calls for unity. A U.S. view, of an event under international eyes.

Published 21 Jan 2021, 12:01 GMT, Updated 21 Jan 2021, 20:26 GMT
Joseph R. Biden takes the oath to become the 46th president of the United States. “The ...

Joseph R. Biden takes the oath to become the 46th president of the United States. “The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us," he said in his address, "but on all of us, on we the people, who seek a more perfect union.”

Photograph by Andrew Harnik, AP

“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” said Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. moments after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

On this day, Americans are reminded that we are different. On any other day, we can go a little overboard in rhapsodizing our singularity. America did not invent democracy, after all. We are far from the world’s sole repository of free speech, peaceful assembly, and fair trials. With apologies to the country music duo Brooks & Dunn, whose song “Only in America” is a staple on the campaign trail, in many other nations “everybody gets to dance” and “dream as big as we want to.” For that matter, the nonpartisan election advocacy group FairVote lists what it calls 35 “well-established democracies”—and in each of these countries, a national election routinely produces a winner to whom power is transferred in an orderly, nonviolent manner.

What sets America apart is the spectacle of that transfer, broadcast around the world: relinquisher of power and receiver on the same stage on the Capitol’s West Front, surrounded by their families and others entrusted to power, including the elite fraternity of presidents past, while hundreds of thousands gather before them, a sea of eyewitnesses at times spilling all the way down the National Mall to the obelisk dedicated to America’s first president, George Washington. Being an act of openness and renewal, it is a quintessentially outdoor event, replete with heavy coats and frosty breath. Above all else, this passing of power from one president to another conveys the sacred idea that such power is always derivative—that it resides finally, immutably with the people. For all the burlesque that befouls our politics, the quadrennial ritual on January 20 is when we are humbled by the reminder of our own solemn charge. It is self-rule made manifest. (Here's a brief history of the inaugural ceremonies that set our traditions—and later broke them.)

A family wearing American flag masks peers through the security fence at the route that the inauguration motorcade takes to the U.S. Capitol.

Photograph by Nina Berman, National Geograhpic

Today, the visual impact of that scene was weakened noticeably by the absence of the outgoing president, Donald Trump. Not since 1869 had the old declined to join the new on the stage. On that previous Inauguration Day over 150 years ago, it was another recently impeached president, Andrew Johnson, who elected not to attend. The crowd was otherwise vast for the newly elected Ulysses S. Grant, as he took his oath of office on the east portico of the Capitol facing the Supreme Court. (To accommodate swelling attendance, the ceremonies were moved to the west side beginning with Ronald Reagan’s swearing-in on January 20, 1981.) Observed the former Union general in his address to the nation, “The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with.”

The 18th president spent the next eight years overseeing a short-lived Reconstruction, economic panics, and a corrupt Cabinet. Still, Grant held America together, and in 1877 he welcomed his successor, Rutherford Hayes, to dinner at the White House. The country survived Johnson’s breach of tradition, in other words. And we are likely to weather the estrangement between the 45th president and the 46th. 

President Trump’s followers and denouncers can agree on at least one thing: His four years in the Oval Office have accomplished a profound severance from many of the norms that preceded him. Or as he put it on the airstrip at Andrews Air Force Base before departing for Palm Beach, with uncharacteristic understatement: “We were not a regular administration.” Well before Trump, government bureaucrats had sporadically been cast by politicians as incompetent, officious, and “pointy-headed”—but never as a malevolent “deep state.” The media was criticised for liberal bias and elitism (and indeed was openly partisan during the early 19th century) but never repeatedly accused of being “the enemy of the American people,” at least not in our lifetime. The expertise of scientists, educators, and intelligence officials was always regarded as fallible but never wholly disposable. Now an encompassing suspicion of nearly every enduring institution afflicts a disquietingly large segment of the electorate.

The Howard University Showtime March Band practices on campus the night before it escorted Kamala Harris, a Howard graduate, to the inauguration.

Photograph by Jared Soares, National Geographic

Before being sworn in, Biden and his family joined congressional leaders for Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Tom Brenner, REUTERS

In his speech, Biden felt the need to remind his audience that “there is truth and there are lies,” adding that every citizen had a duty to defend the former while defeating the latter. Most of all, his address was a plea for unity. "Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path," Biden said. "Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war." Will he reawaken a lost American vocabulary? Or is this language already extinct?

Today was, thanks to the pandemic, America’s first “virtual” Inauguration Day. This, too, marked a disconnection from tradition—though it was oddly in keeping with Biden’s presidential campaign events, which were as COVID-consciously spartan as Trump’s were defiantly crowded. For the first time in memory, we will have a new president whose popular mandate can be measured only in raw voting totals, rather than through the reinforcing visual metrics of crowds at convention halls, election night campaign headquarters, and the Mall on Inauguration Day. This on top of his age—78, the oldest president in U.S. history—invites questions about how he will preside over a country as psychically stricken as the one that President Grant confronted when he was 46. (Past inaugural addresses show the way forward through times of crisis.)

The Bidens walk on a blue-and-red carpet toward the stage on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol where the transfer of power between administrations takes place.

Photograph by Win McNamee, Getty Images

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible. She is the nation's first Black, Asian and female vice president.

Photograph by Andrew Harnik, AP Photo

Trump speaks to the media at the White House for the last time as president before he and his family make their way to Mar-a-Lago. The Florida estate is now his primary residence.

Photograph by Alex Brandon, AP

Trump disembarks at the airport in West Palm Beach to begin his life as a private citizen.

Photograph by Carlos Barria, REUTERS

Traditionally, Inaugural Day has provided a first glimpse of a new administration’s tone and priority. It was a useful harbinger of the coming era, although in recent years the pageantry of January 20 also can be seen as a paean to American excess, with corporate donors rampaging through Washington hotel bars like tuxedo-clad pirates. I was in the city in 2005 for the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term—attending, among other galas, the uproarious “Black Tie & Boots” ball thrown by affluent Texans. The giddy swagger of that night decidedly turned the page from Bush’s uneasy beginning four years earlier, following a contested election that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Four years later, as a Capitol Hill resident, I woke up early on the morning of January 20 to watch hundreds of my African- American neighbours throng to the Mall on foot in the biting cold to bear witness to the inauguration of the nation’s first Black president. As I would later learn while researching a book on Congress, that same evening a group of about 15 Republican leaders met for a desultory dinner at a Washington steakhouse. Many of them had attended Barack Obama’s inauguration and were palpably shocked by the immenseness of the crowd—visual evidence, it seemed at the time, that all of America had sided against them. (By the end of the evening, their spirits improved as they crafted a plan to make Obama a one-term president.)

A flag waves over Black Lives Matter Plaza, just north of the White House, as Marine One lifts off in the distance with Donald and Melania Trump aboard.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

As Biden speaks after he was sworn in, the steps of the U.S. Capitol are sparsely filled with attendees. The afternoon included speeches, prayers, performances, and a poetry recital.

Photograph by Brendan Mcdermid, Reuters

But my crispest memory of January 20, 2009, comes from very late that evening, after a gala I attended on Pennsylvania Avenue. The attendees were mostly young Obama campaign staffers and volunteers, but among them was Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general during the Clinton administration. As the party wound down, I saw the white-haired and tuxedo-clad Dellinger say a few goodbyes, mount a bicycle (for years his Washington vehicle of choice) and pedal off into the night. A few younger gala-goers gazed at the Clinton official in awe, as if he possessed in his mind a map of the city incomprehensible to them.

That same city now awaits a president who, as a U.S. senator for 36 years, made it a point of pride not to live there, instead taking the Amtrak home from work every evening to Wilmington, Delaware, to be with his family. Presidents have long interacted with Washington in revelatory ways. A political lifer, Biden’s connection to the capital city is nonetheless indistinct. George W. Bush was famously a White House homebody, seldom venturing out (except on sequestered biking trails); a popular Austin restaurant called Jeffrey’s owned by friends of his opened a sister restaurant in Washington in hopes of capitalising on the presence of Texas transplants, but it fizzled. The Obamas made it a point to patronise local establishments and sporting events, while Trump preferred to hold forth at the White House residence or at his grand hotel just down the street. Will Biden use Washington as his stage, his foil or something else? The usual Inaugural Day clues were not in evidence.

The inauguration ceremony looked very different in 2013 than it did in 2021. Nearly 200,000 American flags stand in for the crowd that would have attended in non-pandemic times, along with the flags of each state.

Photograph by Stephen Wilkes

The inauguration ceremony looked very different in 2013 than it did in 2021. Nearly 200,000 American flags stand in for the crowd that would have attended in non-pandemic times, along with the flags of each state.

Photograph by Stephen Wilkes

The U.S. Army Band plays during the inauguration ceremony. The tradition-filled ceremony was scaled down to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Photograph by Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images

Still, history was made as the new president took his oath in front of a hallowed symbol of democracy that just two weeks earlier had been besieged by supporters of his predecessor. The Capitol still stood. The insurrection to deprive Joe Biden of his democratically earned presidency had failed. Wearing masks under sunny, but wintry skies, a few hundred selected guests bowed in prayer on behalf of the new administration. If an empty Mall was the price of preserving the Republic, Washington would count its blessings and take a rain check on celebrations yet to come.

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