WASHINGTON, United States – Thirty-four years after first seeking the job, Joseph “Joe” Robinette Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th US president Wednesday, drawing a curtain on the most tumultuous administration of modern times and charting a new course to tackle COVID-19 and unite a splintered nation.
Outgoing President Donald Trump entered the White House four years ago as a brash billionaire outsider, but he has been ousted by a polar opposite whose devotion to service, deep knowledge of Washington, and personal scars will unquestionably set a different tone.
Biden, a 78-year-old former vice president and longtime senator, took the oath of office at noon (1 A.M. Manila Time) on the US Capitol’s West front, the very spot where pro-Trump rioters clashed with police two weeks ago before storming Congress in a deadly insurrection.
While a transition of power occurred much as it has for more than two centuries, this inauguration was unlike any other.
Official Washington had taken on the dystopian look of an armed camp, protected by some 25,000 National Guard troops tasked with preventing any repeat of this month’s attack.
And with the pandemic raging, the general public was essentially barred from attending the swearing-in, leading to unprecedented optics: an empty National Mall on Inauguration Day.
Trump intends to leave Wednesday morning for his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, arriving before President-elect Joe Biden was inaugurated.
There, the ex-president will begin his post-presidency life attended at least temporarily by a handful of former White House staffers.
The last president who chose not to attend his successor’s inauguration was Andrew Johnson in 1869, another impeached leader.
While Biden has said it’s a “good thing” Trump would not observe his swearing-in. Trump, who has not appeared in public for a week, broke days of silence with a pre-recorded farewell video address.
Trump for the first time asked Americans to “pray” for the success of the incoming Biden administration — a change of tune from weeks spent persuading his huge number of Republican followers that the Democrat cheated in their election battle.
Trump has yet to personally congratulate Biden on his win. He did not invite him for the customary cup of tea in the Oval Office.
Sweeping immigration reforms
Biden will roll back Trump’s tough approach to undocumented immigrants in sweeping reforms to be introduced on his first day in office, Biden’s Homeland Security Department nominee said Tuesday.
Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas told a Senate panel that the reforms would include a path to citizenship for millions of longtime US residents without papers, and the possibility of asylum to others escaping abuse and violence.
“President-elect Biden has committed to presenting Congress, on day one, with an immigration reform bill that, once and for all, fixes I think what we all can agree is a broken immigration system,” Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Biden “has spoken of the need for a path to citizenship for the individuals who have been in this country for many years, who have contributed to our communities and to this nation’s economic prosperity,” he said.
The Washington Post reported that Biden will unveil broad immigration reforms Wednesday just after his inauguration.
According to the Post, they will include an eight-year track to gain citizenship for immigrants without legal status, and an increase in admissions, which Trump slashed to a trickle.
“I would be privileged to work with Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that provides that path, and provides a permanent solution to what is clearly a broken system,” said Mayorkas.
Asylum Mayorkas told the committee, which is vetting his nomination, that if approved as secretary of Homeland Security he would roll back departing Trump’s tough measures to seal the southern US border.
Arriving migrants would be permitted to apply for asylum and have their cases reviewed — a process the Trump administration virtually ended, with the effect of sharply reducing migrant entry into the country, Mayorkas said.
Under Biden, “There is a commitment to follow our asylum laws, to enforce our asylum laws,” he said.
“That means to provide humanitarian relief for those individuals who qualify for it.”
But, he added, “it will take time to build the infrastructure and capacity.”
Mayorkas could face his first challenge, if approved, with thousands of migrants who set out from Honduras to reach US-Mexico border.
Biden on Tuesday signaled a new tone for the US government by leading a powerful tribute to the 400,000 Americans lost to COVID-19 as he arrived in Washington on the eve of his inauguration.
Biden, who has suffered deep personal tragedy and is known for his public displays of emotion, has stressed the need to unite the country after President Donald Trump’s chaotic four years in office.
“It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” Biden said in somber remarks at the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
The US on Tuesday recorded another 2,482 deaths due to the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tally.
Inauguration eve is normally a time of massive crowds gathering in the capital, but Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, were almost alone on the empty National Mall due to COVID restrictions and heightened security after the deadly riot at the US Capitol.
On the Mall’s grassy expanse, some 200,000 flags have been planted to represent the absent crowds at the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday.
Trump, who has not appeared in public for a week, broke days of silence with a pre-recorded farewell video address.
For the first time he asked Americans to “pray” for the success of the incoming administration — a change from months spent persuading his Republican followers that the Democrats cheated their way to election victory.
In one of his last acts before he flew to Florida on Wednesday morning, Trump was expected to issue scores of pardons, with speculation rife over who might make the list.
The latest indications were that Trump would not take the legally dubious step of issuing himself and his children preemptive pardons.
Outside the White House fence, central Washington took on a dystopian look ahead of Biden’s inauguration, swarming with National Guard troops and largely emptied of ordinary people.
Fears of right-wing attacks in the wake of the pro-Trump riot in the Capitol building on January 6 triggered unprecedented deployment of armed personnel, concrete barriers and secure areas dubbed “green” and “red” zones.
Adding to the tension, the Senate is expected to put Trump on trial soon, following his record second impeachment by the House of Representatives over the Capitol riot.
Biden comes to town
Earlier on Tuesday, tears rolled down Biden’s cheeks at a farewell ceremony in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, where he paid tribute to his late son Beau, a rising politician who died of brain cancer in 2015 aged 46.
“I only have one regret, that he’s not here,” Biden said. Biden, a veteran Democratic senator who also served as vice president to Barack Obama, is staying overnight with his wife Jill in Blair House, a residence for heads of state and other important visitors across the street from the White House.
His inaugural speech would be between 20-30 minutes, according to a source familiar with preparations, and “he will reach out to all Americans, and call on every citizen to be part of meeting the extraordinary challenges facing all of us.”
To symbolize the new spirit, Biden has invited the two top senators — Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell — and other congressional leaders to attend a church service with him on Wednesday before the inauguration.
A person familiar with McConnell’s plans confirmed to AFP the Republican congressional leader would join Biden, a longtime Senate colleague, in church.
Taking the oath
Biden will travel in a motorcade to the Capitol, the site of the January 6 riot by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, where the inauguration ceremony was to get underway at 11:00 a.m. (1600 GMT).
The National Mall that runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial will be closed due to COVID-19 fears and because of tight security stemming from the January 6 attack.
Lady Gaga was due to sing the national anthem, while Jennifer Lopez was also set to give a musical performance.
As is custom, the newly inaugurated 46th US president would then dine with members of Congress in the Capitol building.
Arlington National Cemetery
In the afternoon, Biden was to head to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington to place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, accompanied by former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
From Arlington, Biden was to travel by motorcade to the White House, make the last part of the journey on foot, and enter his new home surrounded by a military cordon.
Biden was due to sign his first executive orders shortly after arriving.
Honoring the pandemic’s victims
At 8:25 p.m., Biden and Harris was to give a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the 400,000 people that have died from COVID-19 in America.
Shortly after, actor Tom Hanks would host a show called “Celebrating America” that will be broadcast on all major US networks.
Jon Bon Jovi, the Foo Fighters, John Legend, Demi Lovato, Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake, and Luis Fonsi were among the guests expected to perform.