Joe Biden swears the oath of office at noon Wednesday to become the 46th president of the United States, taking the helm of a deeply divided nation and inheriting a confluence of crises arguably greater than any faced by his predecessors.
The very ceremony in which presidential power is transferred, a hallowed American democratic tradition, will serve as a jarring reminder of the challenges Biden faces: The inauguration unfolds at a U.S. Capitol battered by an insurrectionist siege just two weeks ago, encircled by security forces evocative of those in a war zone, and devoid of crowds because of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Stay home, Americans were exhorted, to prevent further spread of a surging virus that has claimed 400,000 American lives. Biden will look out over a capital city dotted with empty storefronts that attest to the pandemic’s deep economic toll and where summer protests laid bare the nation’s renewed reckoning on racial justice.
He will not be applauded or likely even acknowledged by his predecessor.
Flouting tradition, Donald Trump planned to depart Washington on Wednesday morning ahead of the inauguration rather than accompany his successor to the Capitol. Trump, awaiting his second impeachment trial, stoked grievance among his supporters with the lie that Biden’s win was illegitimate.
Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanizing a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. On his first day, Biden will take a series of executive actions — on the pandemic, climate, immigration, and more to undo the heart of Trump’s agenda. He takes office with the bonds of the republic strained and the nation reeling from challenges that rival those faced by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Biden will face a series of urgent, burning crises like we have not seen before, and they all have to be solved at once. It is very hard to find a parallel in history,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “I think we have been through a near-death experience as a democracy. Americans who will watch the new president be sworn in are now acutely aware of how fragile our democracy is and how much it needs to be protected.”
Biden will come to the office with a well of empathy and resolve born by personal tragedy as well as a depth of experience forged from more than four decades in Washington. At age 78, he will be the oldest president inaugurated.