Biden must find words for a wounded nation in inauguration like no other

National guard soldiers stand guard on the grounds around the US Capitol building in Washington DC ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s 46th president.
National guard soldiers stand guard on the grounds around the US Capitol building in Washington DC ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s 46th president. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA
National guard soldiers stand guard on the grounds around the US Capitol building in Washington DC ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s 46th president. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Planners have been forced to be inventive after the deadly pandemic and now last week’s Capitol insurrection dictated a pared-down event amid real fears of assassination

David Smith
in Washington

Last modified on Wed 20 Jan 2021 22.17 EST

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With nearly half a century in Washington behind him, Joe Biden has waited a long time for this moment. But when he places his hand on a Bible, repeats a 35-word oath and is sworn in as the 46th US president at noon on Wednesday, the backdrop will be nothing like he ever imagined.

Biden’s inauguration on the steps of the US Capitol will be among the strangest in American history because of the one-two punch of a coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation and heightened security following deadly mob violence at the Capitol itself.

In this daunting situation he will try to find the words to begin healing a bitterly polarised nation. But quite possibly nothing Biden says will be as important as the symbolism of Vice-President Mike Pence and former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama gathering to witness a peaceful transfer of power.

Many hope that the bipartisan tableau will herald a return to political norms and a turning of the page after four years of turmoil under Trump, who has announced that he will be the first president in 150 years to boycott the ceremonial handover to his successor.

“The most important person there is going to be Vice-President Pence,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington. “Between Pence and Bush, that’s a powerful message to at least a portion of the public that not all of the Republican party is the Trump party.”

The pandemic had already guaranteed that this would be a pared-down inauguration, with organisers urging the public to stay away and watch on TV, a far cry from Obama’s star-studded first inauguration when more than a million people filled the national mall. About 2,000 people are expected to attend while wearing masks and physically distancing.

Then came last week’s pro-Trump insurrection in which rioters swarmed the west front of the Capitol, even climbing the scaffolding and bleachers built for the inauguration. Fears of another assault mean that Biden will now become the world’s most powerful man in surroundings that more resemble Baghdad’s green zone than an open city of boulevards and monuments.

A member of the national guard provides security at the US Capitol.
A member of the national guard provides security at the US Capitol. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Secret Service is leading what is calls a “zero fail mission”. Barricades, checkpoints and a 7ft (two-metre) high fence have been erected around the Capitol with national guard troops stationed at the perimeter. Some 20,000 such troops will be deployed and half of those will be in the city by Saturday in case protests erupt this weekend.

Streets near the Capitol have been closed, the National Park Service has closed the Washington Monument to tours and the home-sharing company Airbnb said it was cancelling all reservations in the Washington area to discourage demonstrators from staying in the city.

On Wednesday, as he was being impeached for inciting the mob attack, Trump released a video message urging calm. “I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week,” he said. “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country and no place in our movement. There must be no violence, no lawbreaking and no vandalism of any kind.”

But ominous messages have appeared in far-right chat rooms and forums about potential trouble. The website of Patriot Action for America, which was recently taken down, called for supporters to encircle the White House, Congress and supreme court days before “to, at all costs, prevent Joseph Biden, or any other democrat from being inaugurated”.

The capital is on edge. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who has attended every inauguration since 1976, said: “We’ve had some strange ones over a couple of hundred years but nothing like this and what’s really sad is people are nervous.

“I would say a fair number of people are hoping they move it inside. You can’t put anything past these people and they clearly have been talking assassination – there’s no other way to put it. These people are crazy and they’ve been legitimised by Trump.”

Biden, who at 78 will be the oldest person ever sworn in as US president, said last Monday: “I am not afraid to take the oath outside.” But security precautions did force him to cancel plans to make a 90-minute journey from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington by train, emulating his daily commute during his 36 years as a senator.

Abraham Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address in 1865, in which he vowed to ‘bind up the nation’s wounds.
Abraham Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address in 1865, in which he vowed to ‘bind up the nation’s wounds. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden when he was vice-president, admitted: “It breaks my heart because there are very few public servants in this country that deserved a traditional inauguration more than Joe Biden and regrettably that won’t take place.”

The theme for the inauguration will be “America United”, a striking contrast with Trump’s dark and divisive event four years ago. Biden, his vice-president, Kamala Harris, and their spouses will lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington national cemetery. They will be joined there by Clinton, Bush and Obama and their wives in a very deliberate show of consensus.

The organising committee has also announced plans for a major public art display spanning multiple blocks of the National Mall that will feature 191,500 US flags and 56 pillars of light to represent every state and territory and “the American people who are unable to travel” to the Capitol.

Traditions such as the inaugural parade and inaugural balls will switch to a virtual format and actor Tom Hanks will host a 90-minute TV primetime special entitled Celebrating America and featuring various celebrities.

Lara Brown, director of the graduate school of political management at George Washington University in Washington, told a Foreign Press Centers briefing: “I would not be surprised at all if they actually set up, say in the East Room of the White House, a space where you could see President Biden and First Lady Dr Jill Biden doing a dance in the ballroom. In other words, they would film it as a virtual event.”

But the relative lack of pomp, pageantry and other distractions means that even more than usual will be riding on the inaugural address. Past presidents such as Abraham Lincoln (“bind up the nation’s wounds”), Franklin Roosevelt (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and John F Kennedy (“ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”) have risen to the occasion.

David Litt, a former speechwriter for Obama, said: “If you think about the number of crises that Joe Biden is taking office during, it’s pretty staggering. I have no idea if we will look back on this as a matter of rhetoric and say this was comparable to Lincoln’s second inaugural or FDR’s first, because those are very high bars, but it’s hard to imagine a president taking office at a more high-stakes time for America.”

Joe Biden. ‘It’s hard to imagine a president taking office at a more high-stakes time for America,’ said Barack Obama’s former speechwriter.
Joe Biden. ‘It’s hard to imagine a president taking office at a more high-stakes time for America,’ said Barack Obama’s former speechwriter. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

Biden’s speeches last year at the Democratic national convention and after his election victory were well received. He is again likely to emphasise themes of redeeming the soul of America, rebuilding trust in institutions and governing for all citizens, not just those who voted for him.

Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugural Addresses of the Last Fifty Years, said: “He’s got his own speechwriter and will likely have help from people in his administration, even maybe people outside like [historian] Jon Meacham and others that are really good wordsmiths.

“They likely have gone back to the drawing board. Normally, these drafts are done around the holidays before Christmas but, given everything in the last week or two, it’s almost like starting over.”

But Kamarck, who as a Clinton administration official was on the podium for his second inauguration in 1997, will not be awarding marks for poetry, zingers or soaring rhetoric at this swearing-in like no other.

“With the country at the breaking point on a variety of levels, we need just competence,” she said. “I don’t care whether he’s inspiring or not and I don’t think anybody else does. After the last four years of utter bullshit from Trump, simply straight-on pragmatism is exactly what the moment calls for and I think that’s what he will do. And frankly, that will be inspiring.”