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Biden takes office, stressing national unity at a time of marked divisions

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WASHINGTON — Joe Biden took his oath of office Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the same spot where a mob staged a riot two weeks earlier to try to prevent him from becoming the 46th president.

In his inaugural address, Biden, 78, framed his remarks around the insurrection but said that “democracy has prevailed.”

“On this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries,” he said.

Biden thanked his predecessors — former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — who attended the inauguration, and Jimmy Carter, who due to health concerns did not make the trip to Washington. Left off that list was former President Donald Trump, who broke precedent by skipping the event after months of falsely claiming his defeat in the 2020 election was due to fraud.

Trump’s absence was far from the only anomaly. Just out of view, approximately 20,000 U.S. National Guard troops were deployed in the aftermath of the pro-Trump siege of the Capitol, and barriers were erected to protect the inauguration ceremony, the memorials at the National Mall and much of downtown Washington. National Guard soldiers lined the streets for miles, a testament to the turmoil and uncertainty inflicted on the capital by the aggrieved supporters of Trump.

Joe Biden (L), flanked by incoming US First Lady Jill Biden is sworn in as the 46th US President by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Biden, alongside his wife, Jill, is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts on Wednesday. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Due to the heightened security measures in the wake of the Capitol siege, as well as safety concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, only approximately 1,000 people attended the inauguration, a marked drop from the 1.8 million who turned out to see Obama take the oath of office in 2009, or the estimated 600,000 who attended Trump’s 2017 inauguration. Between applause lines in his speech, the silence as Biden spoke was palpable.

Protesters were also notably absent, despite warnings from the FBI and the Justice Department that unrest was possible, if not likely, in the coming days.

In his speech, Biden singled out “the rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”

To do so, he said, would require “the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, who when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation said his “whole soul” was in it, Biden declared that he held a similar resolve when it came to bringing the country together now.

“Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause,” Biden said.

The inauguration was attended by numerous Republican lawmakers. Outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, who narrowly escaped the Capitol riot, was also present, opting to skip his former boss’s farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews earlier in the day.

US President Joe Biden (L) and US First Lady Jill Biden walk through the Crypt of the US Capitol for the inauguration ceremony making Biden the 46th President of the United States in Washington DC on January 20, 2021. (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Bidens walk through the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the first speaker at the inauguration, addressed the crowd as snowflakes began falling.

“When an angry, violent mob staged an insurrection and desecrated this temple of our democracy, it awakened us to our responsibilities as Americans,” Klobuchar said. “This is the day when our democracy picks itself up, brushes off the dust and does what America always does — goes forward as a nation.”

While acknowledging the violence at the Capitol, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., portrayed the inauguration as a way to reaffirm American democracy. “This is not a moment of division, it’s a moment of unification,” he said.

Lady Gaga, an ardent Biden supporter throughout the campaign, delivered a soaring rendition of the national anthem.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath of office to Kamala Harris, who made history as the first woman and the first African American and Indian American to become vice president. Moments after she was sworn in on two Bibles — including one that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice — Harris’s staff posted a tweet to mark the occasion.

Chief Justice John Roberts, using a Biden family Bible, administered the oath of office to the new president. “Congratulations, Mr. President,” Roberts said after he had finished the oath.

Reading an original poem titled “The Hill We Climb,” National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman drew cheers for her verse. “We the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother, can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.”

But what will stand out most from the event was the juxtaposition of sober realism and the hopefulness of Biden’s speech.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said. “In each of these moments, enough of us, enough of us have come together to carry all of this forward, and we can do that now.”

US President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration speech on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. - Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden delivers his inaugural speech at the Capitol. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

He appealed to the humanity in all Americans and called for a pause in vitriolic political rhetoric.

“Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury,” Biden said, adding, “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.”

The political discord in the country is just one of the challenges facing the incoming president. Another is the raging coronavirus pandemic that helped disrupt his inauguration planning.

Hours after he held a memorial at the reflecting pool on the National Mall for the more than 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19, Biden asked Americans to join him in a moment of silent prayer to remember the victims.

“We are entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation,” Biden said.

How his message of unity will be received by the millions of Trump supporters, who polls show don’t consider Biden’s election to have been legitimate, remains to be seen. But Biden, the oldest person to ever take the presidential oath of office, seemed on Wednesday at least to be ready for whatever lies ahead.

“Before God and all of you, I give you my word: I will always level with you,” he said. “I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Jeenah Moon/Pool via Reuters

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