Joe Biden sworn in as 46th US president, takes helm of deeply divided nation

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Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, ending the tumultuous four-year term in the White House of Republican Donald Trump.

Biden, 78, took the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at a solemn ceremony at the US Capitol which was snubbed by the outgoing president and took place in the shadow of a raging coronavirus pandemic.

Before Biden, Kamala Harris was sworn in as US vice president, becoming the first woman, the first Black person and the first Asian American to hold the office.

Democrat Biden has become the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that has been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

Following his oath of office, Biden celebrated his incoming administration not as a celebration of a candidate but a victory for US democracy, saying more work must be done to heal the nation.

“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” he said in his inaugural speech. “Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy.”

He vowed to defeat political extremism and domestic terror. The US faces “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront, and we will defeat,” he said in his first speech.

Trump, a Republican, left the White House with his wife Melania just after 8am (1300 GMT) and went by helicopter to a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews, where he promised supporters “we’ll be back in some form” and extolled his administration’s successes before flying off to Florida.

Top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, were not there to see him go. Biden arrived at the Capitol just before 10:30am for his inauguration after a visit to church, where he was joined in a show of unity by the two most senior Republicans in Congress: Senator Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

With only a small number of attendees present, Biden took the oath of office around noon, placing his hand on an heirloom Bible that has been in the Biden family for more than a century.

Trump flouted one last convention on his way out. His refusal to attend his successor’s swearing-in breaks with more than a century and a half of political tradition, seen as a way of affirming the peaceful transfer of power.

The president did, however, leave a customary note for Biden in the Oval Office, according to a White House official, though it was not yet known what it said.

Biden’s running mate, Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first Black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she was sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina member.

Tense atmosphere

The tense atmosphere in Washington has evoked the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln, who was secretly transported to Washington to avoid assassins on the eve of the Civil War, or Roosevelt’s inaugural in 1945, when he opted for a small, secure ceremony at the White House in the waning months of World War II.

Despite security warnings, Biden declined to move the ceremony indoors and instead will address a small, socially distant crowd on the West Front of the Capitol. Some of the traditional trappings of the quadrennial ceremony will remain.

After the ceremony, Biden will oversee a “Pass in Review”, a military tradition that honours the peaceful transfer of power to a new commander in chief. Then, Biden, Harris and their spouses will be joined by a bipartisan trio of former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Ceremony.

Later, Biden will join the end of a slimmed-down inaugural parade as he moves into the White House. Because of the pandemic, much of this year’s parade will be a virtual affair featuring performances from around the nation.

In the evening, in lieu of the traditional glitzy balls that welcome a new president to Washington, Biden will take part in a televised concert that also marks the return of A-list celebrities to the White House orbit after they largely eschewed Trump. Among those in the lineup: Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem at the Capitol earlier in the day.