When Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. raises his hand upon instruction from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to swear an oath to the constitution in a scaled-back inauguration ceremony on Wednesday afternoon, it will mark the beginning of a presidency and the culmination of his remarkable and unique journey to reach the summit of U.S. politics.
Biden, 78, is to be sworn in as the 46th president in inaugural ceremonies on the west front of the Capitol that begin at 10 a.m. ET in Washington, D.C. The ceremonies have been scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic, with heightened security measures arising from the Capitol riot exactly two weeks ago.
Aides say Biden will use Wednesday’s inaugural address — one that will be delivered in front of an unusually small in-person group and is expected to run 20 to 30 minutes — to call for American unity and offer an optimistic message that Americans can get past the dark moment by working together.
Biden and his wife, Jill, began the day by attending a service at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Along with incoming vice-president Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, those in attendance included: both Senate leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer, as well as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Many presidents have chosen St. John’s Episcopal Church, sometimes called the “church of the presidents,” for the inaugural day service. Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history after John F. Kennedy, and St. Matthew’s is the seat of the Catholic archbishop of Washington.
Entered Washington politics 48 years ago
The Bidens spent Tuesday night at Blair House, as has been the tradition ahead of inauguration.
Biden will become just the seventh person to have served as senator, vice-president and president and the first to achieve that feat since Richard Nixon. While on paper that wealth of previous experience may give the impression of inevitability to his becoming president, there were two failed bids and multiple points along the way where one could reasonably doubt he’d ever be addressing the nation Wednesday as the incoming commander-in-chief.
Biden took his first oath of office as a Washington politician just over 48 years ago, in a hospital room in Delaware as his two sons recuperated from a car crash that killed Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi.
Biden the senator-elect agonized over what to do just two months after his 3,000-vote upset win over Cale Boggs, but moved forward with the support of sister Valerie and extended family, who helped raise the young boys, Beau and Hunter. Still, Biden told reporters in the hospital room he was going to give it six months to see how it went.
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“I promise you that I will contact [the governor] as I had earlier, and tell him that we can always get another senator, but they can’t get another father,” he said.
During his years in Congress, he earned the slings and arrows that come along with serving in Congress — a strong reputation for bipartisan work and criticism for his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings from both parties. There were also a pair of brain aneurysms in the late 1980s, one which was life-threatening.
In 2008, he was picked by Barack Obama to serve as his running mate, another critical moment, as a politician more thin-skinned than Obama might not have overlooked one of Biden’s periodic verbal gaffes, concerning Obama. Biden, not thrilled with playing second fiddle, later wrote of being persuaded to take the VP job in no small part by his 91-year-old mother, Catherine, who impressed upon him the history of serving under the first Black president.
Chose not to run in 2016
Biden had every intention of running for president in 2016, but was waylaid by another tragedy, the events depicted in his memoir Promise Me, Dad. Beau, expected to become a prominent national politician himself, died of brain cancer after an agonizing battle.
Biden announced his decision not to run in a 2015 news conference at the White House’s Rose Garden.
Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination, and had she defeated Donald Trump in the 2016 general election, Biden is likely not standing alongside wife, Jill, their daughter, Ashley, and several grandchildren to become the next U.S. president.
Biden began the 2020 Democratic primary season as the polling favourite, but name recognition likely held sway. He struggled in early debates, and a glut of candidates may have ultimately proved to be beneficial.
As in the past, Biden proved a survivor, winning the nomination and the general election on Nov. 3.
Harris to be sworn in by Sotomayor
Biden will use a bible for his swearing-in, which is expected just after 12 p.m. ET, that has been in his family since at least 1893. Several inches thick, it is the same bible he used twice when swearing in as vice-president and seven times as a senator from Delaware.
Before Biden’s address, vice-president-elect Harris will be sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday, a history-making event in which the first Black, South Asian and female vice-president will take her oath of office.
Harris, who spent some of her teen years in Montreal, will use a bible in the swearing-in ceremony that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. She will be accompanied by her husband, Doug Emhoff, a lawyer who will soon tweet from the @SecondGentleman account.
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The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced last week that the invocation on Wednesday will be given by the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president, and the Pledge of Allegiance will be led by Andrea Hall, a firefighter from Georgia. There will be a poetry reading from Amanda Gorman, the first national youth poet laureate, and the benediction will be given by a Biden family friend, Rev. Silvester Beaman of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del.
After the events near the Capitol, the Bidens will be accompanied by three former presidents at Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony. Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will be present, while the oldest living president, Jimmy Carter, has sent his well wishes.
The traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue will not take place, but an inaugural parade featuring 1,391 virtual participants, 95 horses and nine dogs is scheduled. Organizers said it will be similar in nature to how convention events were conducted last August.
Although the festivities have been radically scaled down due to the pandemic as well as security threats, a steady stream of A-list names have signed on, headlined by Lady Gaga singing the national anthem on the West Front of the Capitol, with Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks also performing.
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While current Vice-President Mike Pence was expected to attend the inauguration, Trump won’t, the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago.
The outgoing president will loom large in the early days of the Biden presidency, as the Senate plans for a remarkable second impeachment trial while holding confirmation hearings for officials in the new administration. As well, because Trump could not admit defeat and commit to a typical transition, the Biden team was not briefed on several fronts by the outgoing president to the extent that is typical.
The most pressing issue for the Biden team will be to tame the raging coronavirus that has caused political divisions like in few other countries and claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans – a quarter of that total in the past month.
Biden also plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill, hoping to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status.
After 5 p.m, he is scheduled to sign a series of executive orders, many of which roll back Trump initiatives, and at nighttime attend the “Celebrating America” inaugural ceremony along with his wife. The multi-network evening broadcast hosted by Tom Hanks takes the place of the usual multiple inaugural balls.