WASHINGTON: Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday during a ceremony at a heavily protected US Capitol, ending the tumultuous four-year presidency of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
His running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, become the first Black 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.
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.
Biden vowed to end the ‘uncivil war’ in a deeply divided country reeling from a battered economy and a raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
“To overcome these challenges to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity,” he said.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this – if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
Speaking on the steps of the Capitol, where supporters of then-president Donald Trump clashed with police in a chaotic assault that left five dead and stunned the world on January 6, Biden cast his ascension as proof that the attackers had failed to disrupt the underpinnings of American democracy.
“Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work on our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said. “It did not happen; it will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
After a bitter campaign marked by Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud, Biden struck a conciliatory tone rarely heard from his predecessor, asking Americans who did not vote for him to give him a chance.
“I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans,” he said. “And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
Although his remarks were directed primarily at problems at home, Biden delivered what he called a message to those beyond America’s borders, promising to repair alliances frayed by Trump, lead and be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security. He made no specific mention of high-stakes disputes with North Korea, Iran and China.
Earlier, Trump hailed his administration’s record as he left the White House for the last time on Wednesday, hours before Biden assumed the helm of a country beset by deep political divides and battered by a raging coronavirus pandemic.
Biden, 78, became the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that had been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus as well as security concerns following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
Trump left the White House with his wife Melania just after 8 am (1300 GMT) by helicopter on his way to a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews, where he promised supporters “we’ll be back in some form” and listed his administration’s accomplishments before flying off to Florida.
Top Republicans, including former vice president Mike Pence, were not there to see Trump depart. Shortly after Trump finished his remarks, Biden left the presidential guest house in Washington on his way to church, where he was joined by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
Trump’s refusal to greet his successor and attend the inauguration represents a break with more than a century and a half of political tradition, seen as a way to affirm the peaceful transfer of power.
Two weeks ago, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his false claims that November’s election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes. The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.
Thousands of National Guard troops were called into the city after the siege, which left five people dead and briefly forced lawmakers into hiding. Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall was covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from US states and territories.
According to Biden’s advisers, he will waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, signing a raft of 15 executive actions on his first day in office on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change. The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris climate accord and ending Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
Soon after the inauguration, Prime Minister Imran Khan took to Twitter to congratulate the 46th US president.
“I congratulate President @JoeBiden on his inauguration. Look forward to working with @POTUS in building a stronger Pak-US partnership through trade & economic engagement, countering climate change, improving public health, combating corruption & promoting peace in region & beyond,” he wrote.
Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that Pakistan wanted better bilateral relations with the incoming administration.
In a statement, Qureshi said that Biden had a clear perspective needed to understand the on-ground situation in South Asia. “The two sides have the conformity of views about Afghanistan and other priorities such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the strategy to deal with the climate change issue,” the foreign minister said.
Qureshi was of the opinion the American establishment had a bipartisan opinion about India, but it was welcoming to see the incoming setup having an unambiguous stance about the protection of human rights.
He said that the world was pointing out gross human rights violations in occupied Kashmir and expressed hope Biden would play a role in stopping the oppression against eight million Kashmiris.
Meanwhile, General (r) Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick for defence secretary, while addressing a committee, termed Islamabad as an “essential partner” in any peace process in Afghanistan.
The general said that he believed that “continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”
“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan,” he told the attendants.
“If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”
When asked if he has perceived any change in Islamabad’s cooperation with the US since the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withhold financial assistance, General Austin said: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as [proscribed] Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete.”
He, however, acknowledged that “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack [in February 2019].”
“Pakistan is a sovereign country,” Gen Austin said when asked what tools and options the US had to “influence” Islamabad.
“I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”
Biden’s inauguration is the zenith of a five-decade career in public service that included more than three decades in the US Senate and two terms as vice president under former president Barack Obama.
But he faces overlapping crises that will challenge even someone of his political experience.
The pandemic in the US reached a pair of grim milestones on Trump’s final full day in office on Tuesday, reaching 400,000 deaths and 24 million infections – the highest of any country. Millions of Americans are out of work because of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions.
Biden has vowed to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis. His top priority is a $1.9 trillion plan that would enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households. It will require approval from a deeply divided Congress, where Democrats will hold slim advantages in both the House and Senate.
Wednesday’s executive actions, by contrast, are intended to advance Biden’s priorities without the need for legislation.
The president will establish a new White House office coordinating the coronavirus response, revoke the permit granted to the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline and end Trump’s emergency declaration that helped fund a Mexico border wall, among other orders.
Incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden plans additional executive orders in the coming weeks, including eliminating Trump’s restrictions on transgender troops and reversing a policy blocking US funds for overseas programmes linked to abortion.
Although Biden has laid out a packed agenda for his first 100 days, including delivering 100 million Covid-19 vaccinations, the Senate could be consumed by Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, which will move ahead even though he has left office.
The trial could serve as an early test of Biden’s promise to foster a renewed sense of bipartisanship in Washington.