With thousands of armed National Guard troops patrolling nearby, former Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th commander in chief on Wednesday in a Capitol Hill ceremony stripped of most of its pageantry by security concerns and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In his first speech as president, Biden vowed to unify the country and combat internal threats that imperiled his own presidency earlier in the month.
“Here we stand, across the Potomac from Arlington Cemetery, where heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion rest in eternal peace,” Biden said.
“And 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 of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths of office on the Capitol’s west front, the same spot where two weeks ago pro-Donald Trump rioters stormed the building in an effort to stop the certification of last November’s presidential election results.
Five people were killed in the violence, including Capitol Hill Police officer Brian Sicknick, a New Jersey Air National Guard veteran.
In response, 25,000 National Guard troops were deployed to Washington in advance of the inauguration, resulting in a show of military force not seen in the halls of Congress in the last 200 years.
On the Capitol steps, the only military presence that could be seen around Biden was ceremonial, including traditional honor guards and the Marine Corps Band.
But just yards away from the assembled dignitaries, thousands of guardsmen stood watch over the ceremony. Service members with riot shields and rifles were stationed at every entrance to the Capitol grounds. Inside, uniformed troops filled hallways and hearing rooms, awaiting orders.
The behind-the-scenes tension contrasted with the new president’s message of calm and unity.
Biden — the father of a National Guard soldier Beau, who deployed to Iraq with the Delaware Guard in 2008 before dying of brain cancer in 2015 — did not acknowledge the military presence in his speech, but he said he called for an end to the “uncivil war” dividing American along political lines today.
“We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility,” he said.
He called on Americans to “step up” in the midst of multiple national crises that he said require “boldness” to overcome.
“We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism and a climate in crisis; America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways.”
Biden and Harris were scheduled to visit Arlington National Cemetery later in the day with several other former presidents and their families to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in a show of bipartisan unity.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Biden did not devote a significant portion of his first speech as president to overseas military conflicts.
But he did reiterate his campaign promise to restore America’s relationships with overseas allies, and restore America’s standing in the international community after years of strains under Trump.
“America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it,” he said.
“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to bear yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
“We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
Among Biden’s top priorities in the coming days will be the confirmation of his national security team, including defense secretary nominee Lloyd Austin. A vote on Austin, a retired Army four-star who needs a waiver from Congress to serve, could come as early as next week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.