Joseph R Biden Jr was sworn in yesterday as the 46th president of the United States in an inauguration day of many firsts: masked-up attendees; an outgoing president refusing to attend his successor’s swearing-in for the first time since 1974; and Kamala Harris becoming the first black, Asian-American woman to hold the vice presidency.
It all made for a rather extraordinary event, made even more exceptional by the rigorous security measures. Shortly after taking the oath, Biden used his maiden speech as president to hail the resilience of US democracy and mark the day as “our historic moment of crisis and challenge” for which “unity is the path forward”.
His address also stressed the importance of honouring the victims of the coronavirus pandemic “by becoming the people and the nation we know we can and should be”. In this regard, the new commander-in-chief has already put plans in place to carry out 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, bring about a mask and distancing mandate for federal employees, and set up a new White House office to deal with the virus.
The move signals a stark shift from the previous administration’s policies, the most controversial of which the 78-year-old president was in a hurry to reverse and revoke on his first day in the Oval Office, such as the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accord and the travel ban on visitors from mainly Muslin nations. Other policy areas covered in the raft of executive orders and actions signed yesterday include race and gender equality, financial relief, human rights, regulation, and ethics.
Vice President Harris was equally busy after inauguration as she swore in three new Democratic senators to office, which leaves the upper chamber of the US Congress evenly split between the two main parties. Although this 50-50 composition might temper some of Biden’s legislative ambitions, it effectively bestows tie-breaker powers upon Harris in the Senate, making her one of the most powerful vice presidents ever.
Establishing a dialogue of unity in a country so bitterly divided will be the most daunting challenge facing the Biden administration. For now, however, it’s a new day in America; and one that has prompted an almost audible collective sigh of relief from liberal democracies around the world.
In the words of 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, who enthralled everyone with her reading during Biden’s inauguration, “there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”