WASHINGTON, Jan 21 – Joe Biden has taken office as the 46th president of the United States with an optimistic call for unity, vowing to bridge deep divides and defeat domestic extremism two weeks after a violent mob tried to undo his election victory.
On a frigid but sunny day at the very Capitol building that was assaulted on January 6, Biden was sworn in moments after Kamala Harris became America’s first woman vice president, closing the book on Donald Trump’s tumultuous four years.
“Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said before a National Mall that was virtually empty due to the ultra-tight security and a raging Covid-19 pandemic that he vowed to confront immediately.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility and we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes,” he said.
“Together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing and goodness.”
But Trump, who falsely said that he was cheated out of a second term and egged on his supporters before their rampage at the Capitol, broke 152 years of tradition by refusing to attend his successor’s inauguration.
Biden – vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama – appealed to supporters of Trump, who shattered political norms by ruthlessly belittling rivals, denouncing entire ethnic groups and trying to cast doubt on basic facts.
“I will be a president for all Americans,” the veteran Democrat said.
The United States faces “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront, and we will defeat,” Biden said.
At 78, Biden is the oldest-ever US president, a job he first sought in 1987. He is only the second Roman Catholic president and swore his oath on a bulging old family Bible.
Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, became the highest-ranking woman in US history and the first person of color as the nation’s number two.
She and her husband Doug Emhoff – America’s first-ever “second gentleman” – were escorted to the inauguration by Eugene Goodman, a Black police officer at the Capitol who was seen luring the mostly white mob away from the Senate chambers in a video that went viral.
Trump left Washington hours before the inauguration but in a first hint of graciousness, wished the next administration “great luck and great success” – and a spokesman said he maintained one tradition by leaving a letter for Biden.
Central Washington took on the dystopian look of an armed camp, protected by some 25,000 National Guard troops tasked with preventing any repeat. The Supreme Court reported a bomb threat Wednesday morning.
With the public essentially barred from attending due to the pandemic, Biden’s audience at the National Mall instead was 200,000 flags planted to represent the absent crowds.
Biden nonetheless brought in celebrity power. Lady Gaga, in a dress with a black bodice and a billowing red skirt, sang the national anthem and Tom Hanks prepared to host a televised evening appearance with the new president.
Jennifer Lopez sang a pop rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” often considered the unofficial US national anthem, ending it by exclaiming the final words of the pledge of allegiance – “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – in Spanish.
The new first lady Jill Biden invited 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, who became a star of the day with verse on how democracy “can never be permanently defeated.”
Biden plans to kick off his presidency with a flurry of 17 orders including rejoining the Paris climate accord, ending the US exit from the World Health Organization, rescinding a ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority nations and halting construction of Trump’s cherished wall on the Mexican border.
Biden, who has vowed a major escalation of vaccination against Covid-19, warned that the “toughest and deadliest period” was still ahead from the pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, more than in any other country. – AFP