Biden, sworn in at 11:49 a.m. ET, used a 21-minute inaugural address to call for unity and offer an optimistic message that Americans can get through dark moments by working together. The ceremonies were scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, with heightened security measures arising from the Capitol riot exactly two weeks ago.
"Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge," Biden said early in his address. "Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause: the cause of democracy."
Biden pivoted to the challenges ahead, acknowledging the surging virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States and become a polarized issue unlike in most other countries. Biden looked 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 injustice.
"Those 400,000 fellow Americans — moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, neighbours and co-workers — we’ll honour them by becoming the people and nation we know we can and should be," he said, before asking for a silent prayer on their behalf.
Biden called on Americans to overcome divisions, declaring that "without unity, there is no peace."
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red versus blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal," he said. "We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts."
There was, he 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."
Biden also hailed the historic achievement of his Vice-President Kamala Harris. Harris took the oath administered by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, becoming the first Black, South Asian and female vice-president.
Harris, who spent some of her teen years in Montreal, was said to be using a Bible in the swearing-in ceremony that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.
Biden and his wife, Jill, began the day by attending a service at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Along with Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, those in attendance included: both Senate leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer, as well as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history after John F. Kennedy, and St. Matthew’s is the seat of the Catholic archbishop of Washington.
A Capitol police officer hailed as a hero for his actions during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol accompanied Harris and Biden at the west front. Officer Eugene Goodman, a Black man, confronted the overwhelmingly white insurrectionists and led them away from Senate chambers.
Family Bible brought out again
Prominent U.S. politicians past and present proceeded to the west front shortly before 11 a.m., with 44th president Barack Obama and wife Michelle getting a notable round of applause. Two other past presidents arrived with their wives — Bill and Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush and his wife, Laura — while the oldest living president, 96-year-old Jimmy Carter, had sent his well wishes.
Vice-President Mike Pence was the highest-ranking official from Donald Trump’s administration to attend the inauguration, but not Trump, the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago.
Biden used a Bible for his swearing-in that has been in his family since at least 1893. Several inches thick, it is the same Bible he used twice when being sworn in as vice-president and seven times as a senator from Delaware.
Although the festivities were radically scaled down due to the pandemic as well as security threats, a steady stream of A-list names signed on, headlined by Lady Gaga singing the national anthem, with Jennifer Lopez singing This Land Is Your Land and America the Beautiful and Garth Brooks performing Amazing Grace.
An invocation was given by the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president, and the Pledge of Allegiance was led by Andrea Hall, a firefighter from Georgia. Amanda Gorman, the first national youth poet laureate, gave a riveting address, while the benediction was given by a Biden family friend, Rev. Silvester Beaman of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del.
Biden, Harris and their spouses paused on the steps of the U.S. Capitol while leaving to observe the procession of ceremonial military regiments. Several groupings passed by the steps, with military members saluting the new president and musicians playing traditional patriotic tunes such as Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The couples were then joined by the three former presidents and their wives at Arlington National Cemetery for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner by a brass band and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As Biden was ushered in, congratulations poured in from around the world, including statements from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Pope Francis sent a message to the second Catholic U.S. president, saying he hoped Biden’s decisions would be guided by justice, freedom and respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those with no voice.
Long political career
Biden becomes just the seventh person to have served as senator, vice-president and president and the first to achieve that feat since Richard Nixon. While on paper that wealth of previous experience may give the impression of inevitability to his becoming president, there were two failed bids and multiple points along the way where one could reasonably doubt he’d ever become commander-in-chief.
Biden took his first oath of office as a Washington politician just over 48 years ago, in a hospital room in Delaware as his two sons recuperated from a car crash that killed Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi.
During his years in Congress, he earned the slings and arrows that come along with serving in the Senate — a strong reputation for bipartisan work and criticism for his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings from both parties. There were also a pair of brain aneurysms in the late 1980s, one of which was life-threatening.
In 2008, he was picked by Obama to serve as his running mate. Biden, not thrilled with playing second fiddle, later wrote of being persuaded to take the VP job in no small part by his 91-year-old mother, Catherine, who impressed upon him the history of serving under the first Black president. Catherine Biden died in 2010, eight years after her husband, Joe Sr.
Biden had every intention of running for president in 2016, but was waylaid by another tragedy. His oldest son, Beau, expected to become a prominent national politician himself, died at 46 of brain cancer.
As in the past, Biden proved a survivor in the 2020 Democratic race after a slow start, winning the nomination and the general election on Nov. 3.
In addition to his wife Jill, whom he married in 1977, their son Hunter, daughter Ashley and several grandchildren were on hand to watch him become the next U.S. president.
A slimmed-down version of the traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue did take place in the end. The Bidens, wearing masks, walked an abbreviated part of the parade route, and then through a military cordon lining the White House driveway with the flags of U.S. states, leading the first couple to the main entrance under the North Portico.
Harris and Emhoff followed shortly after, also walking the abbreviated route wearing masks, accompanied by their extended family.
The inaugural parade featured 1,391 virtual participants, 95 horses and nine dogs.
Democrats take control of Senate
Biden was expected to immediately begin working, with a stack of executive orders on immigration and other matters awaiting his signature.
One of Harris’s first orders of business was to swear in three new senators, giving Democrats the majority in the Senate and across a unified government to tackle the new president’s agenda at a time of unprecedented national challenges.
Harris drew applause as she entered the chamber to deliver the oath of office to Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock and Alex Padilla just hours after taking her own oath at the Capitol alongside Biden.
The three Democrats join a Senate narrowly split 50-50 between the parties, but giving Democrats the majority with Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote.