President Biden begins term in the midst of the pandemic


Joe Biden is sworn in alongside his wife Jill Biden. Source: Getty Images

On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the presidential oath of office on the second floor of Federal Hall in New York. Roughly 10,000 spectators stood in the streets below. By contrast, in 2021, the inauguration took place in Washington D.C. with limited attendance and maximum security as 40 million people tuned in from home. The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 46th president of the United States, took place on Jan. 20, 2021. Using a Bible that had been in his family for 128 years, Biden was sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Relative to past inaugurations, Biden’s inauguration was unique in that the Presidential Inaugural Committee had to take several precautions in order to maintain health and safety. The Capitol Hill luncheon was cancelled, and only a limited number of guests were allowed to attend the inauguration in person. To recognize those who could not come to the inauguration, over 191,000 US flags were placed in the National Mall, along with 56 pillars of light. Additionally, instead of an in-person afterparty, Biden’s team produced a 90-minute program titled “Celebrating America,” which aired after the inauguration. 

Many feared that there would be violent protests at the inauguration following the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. To account for these concerns, more than 25,000 members of the National Guard were present at the event. Also, breaking with tradition, former President Donald Trump did not attend the event. Instead, only former Vice President Mike Pence attended the inauguration. The tense political climate and peculiar circumstances play a large part in what made Biden’s inauguration so historic.

“[Ken Burns] wrote an essay for Politico, and he said that America is facing its fourth great crisis,” said Matthew Munday, a history teacher at Westminster. “The three preceding crises, which shook the country to its core, were the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. He speaks to the political and social turmoil of 2020 in a similar way, [that] has truly tested the institutional resolve of the country. I think that that, for sure, makes this a very unique inaugural address.” 

Westminster students were given the opportunity to view the inauguration in Warren Lecture Hall.

“[The livestream of the inauguration] was actually very stoic,” said Brooks Batcheller, an Upper School dean and history teacher “Throughout the process, you could hear a pin drop.” 

Westminster faculty have provided support for students during the election process. As in the classroom, the school strived to provide a welcoming political and emotional environment for all students. 

“Recently, during the election, its aftermath, and the inauguration this Wednesday, we’ve seen times of tension in our country and want to reassure you that you should feel safe on this campus, and however you may feel about this inauguration, please know we are here for you if you need us,” said Jaime Saunders, a ninth-grade chair, in an email.

Beyond the unusual circumstances of the presidential inauguration, it broke more than a few glass ceilings. Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, using the Bible that once belonged to Supreme Court justice and civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. Harris’s election makes her the first female vice president, the first African American vice president, and the first vice president of South Asian descent. She is the highest-ranking woman ever elected to an office in the United States thus far. 

In his inaugural speech, Biden spoke of unity in the face of great darkness and acknowledged the effects of the coronavirus on the American people. The speech mirrored those of past presidents, despite new and confounding challenges like COVID. 

“If you were to actually take the text of the inaugural address and compare it to the same ceremonial speech given by past presidents, you find it to be remarkably similar in a lot of places,” said Munday. “It’s very common that every president will have a moment in their speech where they speak to unity and representing every American citizen, not just the ones who vote for them.”

“The expectation is that having a good inaugural address is a pretty low bar for an incoming [president], and you expect an incoming president to give a message of unity, promising to be the leader for all Americans, not just the leader of their own party,” said Batcheller. “The messaging there was very traditional in what was expected.” 

Although Biden’s speech respected tradition and stressed the importance of unity, it is not enough to heal the wounds of an extraordinarily divisive year.  

“A lot of people are skeptical about whether a speech can erase the divide of the last two years,” said John Monahan, an Upper School history teacher. “I doubt that Biden intended that his speech alone would be the thing that solves the divide in America.”

The inauguration celebration, hosted by Tom Hanks, was a star-studded event. Celebrities in attendance included Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake, Kerry Washington, and Lady Gaga. Former presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama attended the event, as well as former first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Laura Bush, and former secretary of state and first lady Hillary Clinton. Members of the Biden and Harris families also attended. More important than their attendees, however, presidential inaugurations have the power to inspire Americans and give a message of hope to the country. 

“I feel like the inauguration represents a celebration of the single person that all of us get to vote for, in contrast to our state senator or congressman,” said Monahan. “It has the ability to be the unifying moment, so whether or not we agree with the words coming out of the president’s mouth, it is a shared experience.” 

This is a proud moment for the American democracy. While the future is uncertain, the inauguration marks a defining period in American history that will be discussed for years to come.

“It is really special to live in a historic moment, but it is a very fleeting time, and believe it or not, normal life is going to come back,” said Batcheller. “These times are going to be something that you’re going to talk about among your friends at reunions, your kids, and your grandkids. The historian in me says sit down, and write down what exactly happened in 2020, and remember the things you want to tell those people in ten, twenty, sixty years.”