For a long time, Jan. 20, 2021, seemed like a day that might never come. It sat there far down the calendar, a tantalising hint of a moment when America might at last be freed from the grip of an incompetent presidency.
The countdown was measured first in weeks, then in days, then hours and minutes, as if Americans were anticipating the arrival of a new year. In this case, it was not just the intense desire of more than 81 million Americans to turn the page on an abominable administration, but a legitimate fear of what Donald Trump could do while still in power, especially without the constant distraction of his Twitter feed.
In the end, Jan. 20 arrived right on schedule, a cold, blustery Wednesday morning in the nation’s capital. There was no crowd on the National Mall this time, only a smattering of guests in carefully spaced folding chairs, in front of a vast field of flags. At 10 minutes to noon, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to Joe Biden. Biden’s swearing-in as the 46th president, and Kamala Harris’ swearing-in as the first female vice president — both standing on the very spot that Trump-incited rioters had stormed two weeks earlier — was the best possible rebuke of that dark day.
If the violent and hateful swarm that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6 represented some of the worst of America, those on the stage Wednesday represented some of the best — like the Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, whose quick thinking helped divert the mob and probably saved lives.
“Democracy is fragile,” Biden said in his inaugural remarks. “And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
The new president appealed to “the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity. Without unity, there is no peace. Only bitterness and fury. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
He invoked the words of Abraham Lincoln on signing the Emancipation Proclamation more than 150 years ago. “My whole soul is in this,” Biden repeated.
Near the end of his speech, Biden called for a moment of silence to honour the memory of the more than 400,000 Americans who have died so far in the coronavirus pandemic. The request was remarkable only because it was the first time in nearly a year that the nation’s leader has evinced a genuine empathy for the grief, pain and loss millions of Americans have endured.
One thing Biden did not say: his predecessor’s name. He had skipped town hours earlier. It was a final failure in a four-year string of failures to perform the most basic tasks of the office he held.
Trump acted as if he were the first person in history to lose a presidential election.
He exhausted the country. He rescinding his own 2017 order barring lobbying by former White House employees. And he doled out last-minute pardons to friends and allies like Steve Bannon, his former campaign manager, who faced federal fraud charges for bilking Trump’s own supporters out of cash that he claimed was going to help build the long-promised border wall.
Trump holds another distinction: the first president to be impeached twice. This time, he might even be convicted by the Senate. Even though Trump is gone from office, the trauma he inflicted on the nation remains. So do at least 74 million people who voted for him, and who aren’t going anywhere. Living under Trump’s mismanagement for four years was made all the more upsetting with the knowledge that so many Americans watched it all happen and decided they wanted even more.
There will be time to figure out how a nation so deeply divided against itself can come together and heal. Biden cannot solve these problems by himself, but he is well aware of the gravity of the situation, and of the hurdles that await. He enters office with the barest possible Senate majority and a thin margin in the House. His legislative agenda will run up against a Supreme Court that Republicans have stolen and stacked with the most hard-line conservatives in a century — justices who are out of step with the majority of Americans, but who will have the final word on interpreting the nation’s Constitution and laws for decades to come.
Now, however, it’s worth pausing and celebrating what America achieved in electing Biden. It is not a magically different nation than it was the day before he was sworn in, but the simple fact that America is now being led by a decent, experienced public servant who cares about improving his constituents’ lives is a big deal. It’s no small feat to vote a corrupt authoritarian out of power. The American people did it; they earned this day. The inauguration of a new president is the crowning ritual of self-government.
In his closing remarks Wednesday, Biden asked whether future generations would be able to say of this one, “They healed a broken land.” With Biden in charge, the nation has a chance to begin that healing. He deserves our profoundest wishes of good luck and Godspeed. He, and America, will need it.
Jesse Wegman is a prominent political columnist and author
The New York Times