Capping the most tumultuous and dangerous 14 days in American politics, Joseph R. Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States just before noon today.
Only two weeks ago, on Jan. 6, a pro-Trump mob swarmed the US Capitol demanding that Biden’s election be overturned, sending legislators, fearing for their lives, to hide under desks and chairs. The mob created a crime scene still being felt across the world, leaving five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer.
A week later, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives by those legislators — Democrats and some Republicans, from Trump’s own party. Now a private citizen back at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, having boycotted the inauguration of Biden, Trump faces a Senate trial next in the impeachment proceedings. (This is his second impeachment.)
Today, at the west-front of the Capitol, repaired after the damage done by the mob, the swearing-in of Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, went off smoothly in a reaffirmation of American democracy and semblance of normality, including Lady Gaga singing the national anthem. The ceremony was also carried out with the protection of tens of thousands of troops in official Washington, marking an unprecedented lockdown to prevent more potential domestic terrorism.
Biden, 78, a two-term vice president, six-term senator, raised in Delaware and Pennsylvania, father, husband and grandfather, was sworn in by US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
In a stirring speech with references to the pandemic, racial injustices, the jobless and “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism,” Biden reminded Americans of the endurance test the country has contended with in the last four years, under the Trump presidency. But graced with sunny skies on a brisk day, Biden also emphasized a quest for “unity” and praised the strong nature of the American people.
“Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” he said. “The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
After three runs for the US presidency, Biden won the Democratic Party nomination in June 2020. He and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, an educator, will be living in the White House with their two dogs and a cat, according to press reports. Biden faces formidable challenges, starting with containing the coronavirus in the US, where it has killed 401,000 people so far; the country’s severe economic downturn, torn-apart mentality and deep inequalities; and disgusted allies overseas.
Harris, the country’s first Black vice president, was sworn in by Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor; Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, is the first second-gentleman for the US. The swearing-in ceremonies took only a few minutes for Biden and Harris, but the inauguration events, live and virtual, went on all day at various Washington locations.
In November, after the election results were clear, President-elect Biden’s first message to fellow world leaders was quick: America is back. Yet he did not mention the United Nations in his foreign policy agenda and has been nearly silent about it since.
His gestures speak more loudly; after the Trump presidency’s defunding and exiting UN entities and agreements, the Biden administration is ready to re-engage with a range of UN agencies and initiatives, some more complicated than others. They include the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization.
On his first day in office, Biden signed 17 executive orders, proclamations and memorandums, two related directly to the UN: rejoining the Paris Agreement and undoing the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
Early on, Biden picked his first Cabinet members, including Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and ambassador to Liberia, as UN ambassador. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has yet to hold its hearing with her, but she is expected to be confirmed for the post. Her deputy will be Jeffrey Prescott. He was a special assistant and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Persian Gulf states in Obama’s National Security Council and was Vice President Biden’s deputy national security adviser and senior Asia adviser.
Some UN aficionados warmed to the fact that the Bidens were married in 1977 at the Methodist-denominated Chapel of the United Nations, which is located across the street from the UN in New York City but not part of the organization.
What did global leaders, US politicos and UN folks say about the new president?
• Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, issued a statement too long to tweet, but it captured the relationship between the US and his country, saying, “Our two countries are more than neighbours — we are close friends, partners, and allies.”
• President Emmanuel Macron of France expressed his exuberance over the US recommitting to protecting “our planet,” saying, in English, “Welcome back to the Paris Agreement!”
• Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, asserted, “The United States are back!” on Jan. 20 to the commission, where she outlined a plan for trans-Atlantic cooperation on global health, climate change and democracy.
• Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who enjoyed a closeness with President Trump, congratulated Vice President Harris, tweeting: “It is a historic occasion. Looking forward to interacting with her to make India-USA relations more robust.”
• António Guterres, UN secretary-general, did not make a formal statement about the inauguration, but his spokesperson said, in part, “The US has a key leadership role to play across the international agenda, including in the Security Council, on matters of peace and security. We also look forward to working with the administration to advance sustainable development, human rights for all the world’s people.”
(Guterres also tweeted: “I warmly welcome @POTUS, Joe Biden’s steps for the USA to re-enter the #ParisAgreement, the global roadmap to tackle the climate emergency. With all countries fully engaged, we have a real opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe & embark on transformative #ClimateAction.”)
• Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the UN, congratulated the incoming and outgoing administrations, tweeting: “Every president’s success is America’s success.”
• Not surprisingly, the Irish mission to the UN noted the country’s connection to Biden and his Irish roots, tweeting, partly: “We’re feeling particularly proud to have a president of Irish ancestry entering the White House.”
• Filippo Grandi, UN high commissioner for refugees, expressed interest in updating the US resettlement program with the help of the Biden team.
• President Hassan Rouhani of Iran reportedly told a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 20 that “the ball is now in Washington’s court” to abide by its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal.
• Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reminisced about his long friendship with Biden while reminding him of the “threat posed by Iran.”
• In Chile, President Sebastian Piñera tweeted: “Today @JoeBiden takes office as the 46th U.S. President. His Administration will have the mission of healing the soul of the country and strengthening civic friendship. . . . I wish President Biden the best.”
Notably silent on the global stage were China and Russia, at least by midafternoon, Jan. 20.
What mattered most in the US happened at noontime, as the country’s new president and vice president were sworn in, and the first national youth poet laureate, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, a Los Angeles advocate and dressed in sharp yellow, recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” written for Inauguration Day, parts of it here:
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.”
Ivana Ramirez contributed reporting to this article.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.