Biden, Harris ascend to office as they prepare to lead a deeply divided American nation

President-elect Joe Biden, Jill Biden, vice-president-elect Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff arrive at the steps of the US Capitol ahead of the inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC. Picture: Melina Mara / Pool via Reuters
President-elect Joe Biden, Jill Biden, vice-president-elect Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff arrive at the steps of the US Capitol ahead of the inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC. Picture: Melina Mara / Pool via Reuters


Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the US on Wednesday, assuming the helm of a country reeling from deep political divides, a battered economy and a raging Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 400 000 Americans.

With his hand on a five-inch thick heirloom Bible that has been in his family for more than a century, Biden took the presidential oath of office administered by US Chief Justice John Roberts, vowing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the US”.

“Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said as he began his inaugural address.

“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause – the cause of democracy ... At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Biden (78) became the oldest US president in history to take office. His swearing in ceremony in Washington was largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance due to both Covid-19 and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by supporters of now-former president Donald Trump.

The norm-defying Trump flouted one last convention on his way out of the White House when he refused to meet with Biden or attend his successor’s inauguration, breaking with a political tradition seen as affirming the peaceful transfer of power.

Trump, who never conceded the November 3 election, did not mention Biden by name in his final remarks as president on Wednesday morning, when he touted his administration’s record and promised to be back “in some form.”

He boarded Air Force One for the last time and headed to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.

Top Republicans, including former vice-president Mike Pence and the party’s congressional leaders, attended Biden’s inauguration, along with former US presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.

Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first black person, first woman and first Asian-American to serve as vice-president after she was sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina member.

Harris used two Bibles, including one owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first black US Supreme Court Justice.

Gallery | Biden, Kamala sworn in, ending Trump’s tumultuous four-year presidency

A divided nation

Biden takes office at a time of deep national unease, with the country facing what his advisers have described as four compounding crises – the pandemic, the economic downtown, climate change and racial inequality. He has promised immediate action, including a raft of executive orders on his first day in office.

The ceremony on Wednesday unfolded in front of a heavily fortified US Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his false claims that the election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes.

The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.

Thousands of National Guard troops were called into the city after the siege, which left five people dead and briefly forced legislators into hiding.

Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall on Wednesday was covered by nearly 200 000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from US states and territories.

‘Soul of America’

Biden, who has vowed to “restore the soul of America”, called for American unity at a time of crisis.

His inauguration is the zenith of a five-decade public service career that included more than three decades in the US Senate and two terms as vice-president under Obama.

But he faces calamities that would challenge even the most experienced politician.

The pandemic in the US reached a pair of grim milestones on Trump’s final full day in office on Tuesday, reaching 400 000 deaths and 24 million infections – the highest of any country. Millions of Americans are out of work because of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions.

Biden has vowed to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis. His top priority is a $1.9 trillion plan to enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households.

But it will require approval from a deeply divided Congress, where Democrats hold slim advantages in both the House and Senate.

Harris was scheduled to swear in three new Democratic senators late on Wednesday, creating a 50-50 split in the chamber, with herself as the tie-breaking vote.

Biden will waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, advisers said, signing 15 executive actions on Wednesday on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change. The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris Agreement and ending Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.

Although Biden has laid out a packed agenda for his first 100 days, including delivering 100 million Covid-19 vaccinations, the Senate could be consumed by Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, which will move ahead even though he has left office.

The trial could serve as an early test of Biden’s promise to foster a renewed sense of bipartisanship in Washington.

Trump issued more than 140 pardons and commutations in his final hours in office, including a pardon for his former political adviser Steve Bannon, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he swindled Trump supporters as part of an effort to raise private funds for the infamous Mexico border wall.

But Trump did not issue preemptive pardons for himself or members of his family, after speculation that he might do so

- Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu, Alexandra Alper and Will Dunham


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