WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was elected on a promise to restore normality to the White House, but his presidency began Wednesday with a most unusual swearing-in, with most of the pomp stripped away by the necessity of circumstance.
The day did not go as inaugurations of past have gone. The mall did not buzz with exuberant crowds; the streets did not teem with parade spectators; and the city's ballrooms were not adorned with sequined gowns.
But it happened, nonetheless, which may be the only thing that matters at a moment when America’s democratic institutions have been tested, almost to the breaking point.
"Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile,” the new president said after taking the oath on his family’s 127-year-old Bible. “And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Washington is a capital city accustomed to absorbing the hammer blows of history, from civil war to terror attacks. But an unprecedented president, a global pandemic and recent deadly riot turned what is typically a moment to rejoice into one mainly of relief.
“You could hear the country’s collective blood pressure drop 100 points during the ceremony,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
Organizers tried to maintain as much of the ceremony as possible while protecting it from both the Covid-19 pandemic and threats of violence, but they were able to salvage little beyond its core function: What Ronald Reagan called the “commonplace and miraculous” act of handing off power.
“We're a nation in crisis, so I don't think it was a celebration in the traditional sense," said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. “To have, almost two weeks ago to the hour, the riot and mob in that exact place, and now us having the transition of power there, Republicans and Democrats together, was really a powerful moment."
Crowds, gone. Masks, on. The outgoing president, nowhere to be seen, for the first time in over 150 years. The parade route, lined with soldiers instead of spectators. The door to the Capitol, still shattered from the mob attack.
Even in the innermost bubble, where normalcy was most protected, on stage where the leaders of all three branches of government, politicians whose nature it is to shake hands and hug had to keep their distance as best they could, before taking their chairs spaced 6 feet apart.
And yet, as if on cue, just before the official handover at noon, the skies cleared, the sun came out and Lady Gaga sang the national anthem.
"If Hollywood had scripted it, we would have said it was corny, but there it was happening in real life, in real time,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
The stripped down ceremony itself went off without a hitch, with performances by Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez, and prayers and poetry. But still, the tone was relatively staid, underscored a silent prayer for those lost to the virus.
It could have hardly been a starker contrast to when Biden sat on the inaugural stage a dozen years ago, to be sworn in as Barack Obama’s vice president.
Then, the mood was jubilant. Americans, including Republicans, were overwhelmingly optimistic about their new president, polls showed. An estimated 1.8 million poured in from around the country to sleep on couches and floors and take all-night bus rides for a chance to stand in the bitter cold on the National Mall and witness history, even if most were too far away to actually witness anything.
Bars and restaurants and hotels overflowed late into the night. Music blared from windows. People danced in the streets, next to vendors hawking commemorative buttons and T-shirts. Salons, clothiers and caterers worked overtime to accommodate VIPs preparing for balls — the Obamas attended 10.
“With Obama, he was such a celebrity and there was so much of a crowd, and there was so much shouting and hollering, it was almost like being at a sports event in a stadium,” Whitehouse said. “This was much more intimate. And it had a lot of soul.”
Rep. Vicente González, D-Texas, who was elected the same year as Trump, said he was initially upset that Trump decided to skip the ceremony, but ultimately felt it was a positive development.
“Not having him around was kind of nice, for a change,” Gonzalez said. “I think it made for a beautiful event. It's a completely new chapter. We're beginning a new era, with a new president, with a new Senate, with a new Congress that I genuinely think will be willing to work together.”
Every inauguration includes a heavy security footprint, but if Obama’s first was four parts Mardi Gras to one part martial law, Biden’s inverted the mix in a recipe born of both paranoia and patriotism.
It’s at least the third time in less than a year that plywood has gone up on storefronts in Washington. And in the “Green Zone” downtown, people took selfies on deserted streets with checkpoints and armored vehicles, instead of the famous attractions of Americana that Washington offers.
The usual ring of police outside the Capitol was dwarfed by National Guard troops guarding miles of black fences topped by razor wire.
Outside the boarded up windows of one fancy steakhouse, where lobbyists might otherwise be hashing out plans for the new administration, a server in crisp white shirt attended to his only customers, four off-duty federal agents, sidearms on their hip.
As the inaugural ceremony got underway mere blocks away, the area along the National Mall was eerily quiet. Generators, golf carts and the occasional wind gust provided the only soundtrack.
There was no sign of protesters, nor supporters. Instead, hundreds of thousands of flags installed by the inaugural committee flapped in the breeze.
Approached by NBC News, a group of inaugural staffers — who in any other year would have done their utmost to draw as big a crowd as possible — noted just how successful they were in keeping people away.
Gabriel Achemu, a 39-year-old Uber driver living in the Washington area, said he's been dispirited by the two weeks that followed the Capitol riot — his city looking and feeling nothing like he was accustomed to. The inauguration left him praying for one thing — national unity.
“What we want is unity for the entire country,” Achemu, originally from Nigeria, said. “It is my greatest desire for Joe Biden.”
For Biden, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. But none of it could have looked the way he must have imagined it since he first considered running for president in the early 1980s.
Not his Democratic primary campaign, which began with embarrassing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Not his general election run, where he was forced to ditch his beloved rope line for Zoom. Not the way he was declared the winner, four sweaty days after the election. And certainly not his transition to power, which faced unprecedented opposition from the outgoing president, who snubbed the ceremony.
Early in his campaign, Biden portrayed himself as a grizzled political vet pulled out of retirement for one last job, though he recruited himself for the task. But as anyone who has seen this movie knows, that one last job always goes sideways before the denouement.
“Here's the thing about life,” Biden said in his remarks. “There's no accounting for what fate will deal you.”