WASHINGTON — Joe Biden, who launched his presidential campaign two years ago vowing to "restore the soul of America," will be sworn in Wednesday as the nation’s 46th president, taking the oath of office on the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol where two weeks earlier, a violent pro-Trump mob sought to overturn his victory.
Biden, who on the campaign trail repeatedly called for "unity over division," will look to amplify that plea in an inaugural address that will be delivered at a heavily guarded Capitol complex, to an audience of about 2,000 lawmakers and dignitaries who have been tested for the coronavirus.
The deadly Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol, by supporters of President Donald Trump who were determined to stop Congress’ certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory, has made a stable inauguration ceremony all the more critical, said Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency.
"The need for a kind of calming speech that moves beyond divisiveness, to work to bring the nation together, is even more critical than ever before in recent memory," Bose said.
Biden has delivered several speeches outlining his agenda since his Nov. 3 victory, but Wednesday’s address will be one of the most significant of his four decades in politics as the former vice president looks to convey confidence that his new administration can navigate rolling out an ambitious coronavirus vaccination program, restoring an economy still reeling from a pandemic, and governing amid a looming Senate trial for Trump, who was impeached last week by the House on the charge of "incitement of insurrection."
Here are five key things to watch for on Wednesday:
Biden’s big message
Incoming White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said Biden’s speech "will be a moment where [he] will really work to try to turn the page on the divisiveness and the hatred over the last four years and really lay out a positive, optimistic vision for the country and lay out a path forward that really calls on all of us to work together."
Biden "believes that we have to bring this country together, that a unified America is the only way that we're going to be able to tackle the massive crises that we're grappling with," Bedingfield said in a Sunday interview with ABCs "This Week."
Ron Klain, the new White House chief of staff, told CNN's "State of the Union" that the Biden speech is "going to be the message of moving this country forward. It's a message of unity. It's a message of getting things done."
Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser to Biden during his time as vice president and to former Vice President Al Gore, said Biden’s speech must acknowledge to some degree that there will be "accountability and consequences" for those behind the Capitol attack.
"There's a lot of pain and anger out there. A lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, this is an anxious nation looking to be comforted," Vela said.
A scaled-back ceremony
Plans were already underway for a scaled-back celebration, given the concerns over spreading the coronavirus, but the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol further intensified plans to discourage visitors from descending on the nation’s capital.
The National Mall, where hundreds of thousands of spectators have gathered to celebrate past inaugurations. has been closed to the public, and a traditional parade along Pennsylvania Avenue has been re-imagined as a "virtual parade" that will feature livestreamed performances from groups across the country, including New York City’s FDNY and EMS Emerald Pipes & Drums band.
Instead of cheering spectators, the National Mall has been lined with more than 200,000 miniature flags from all 50 states and territories.
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman from Great Neck, who has attended every Democratic inauguration since Jimmy Carter was sworn into office in 1977 but will now tune in from home, called the inauguration the "first step in bringing our country together."
"While we all felt as Americans personally assaulted by this domestic terrorist attack on our Capitol, incited by Donald Trump, the inauguration of Joe Biden represents a reaffirmation of our republic, the strength of our Constitution and the enduring value of our democracy," Zimmerman said in an interview.
A bipartisan affair
Biden will make his appeals for unity to an audience that includes Republican lawmakers who voted to object to the certification of his victory at the urging of Trump.
Asked if Republicans who led the charge to challenge the certification should be disinvited from the event, Klain told CNN’s "State of the Union: "We’re going to have to find ways for Democrats and Republicans to get things done."
"I think there are people in both parties we can work with to move this agenda forward," Klain said.
The entire Long Island congressional delegation — Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville), Greg Meeks (D-St. Albans), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) — are expected to be on hand, according to their offices. Zeldin is the sole member who voted to object to the Electoral College certifications.
"The political divisions in the United States are so sharp today that I think the stakes of a peaceful transfer of power and of showing that the American republic can continue to govern even with these deep, political and policy divisions is more important than ever before," Bose said.
As Biden assumes office, Trump will be en route to his Palm Beach, Florida estate, making him the first president to not attend his successor’s inauguration since Andrew Johnson skipped Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration in 1869.
Every living former president except for Democrat Jimmy Carter, 96, is slated to attend Wednesday’s ceremony. Presidents Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all worked together in their post-presidential years — raising relief funds in the wake of natural disasters and most recently issuing a joint call for unity after the Capitol rioting. But Trump has not shared a collegial relationship with his predecessors, often turning to Twitter to berate them.
Trump announced he would not attend the inauguration two days after the Capitol attack, and Biden said Trump’s absence from the affair is "one of the few things we have ever agreed on."
Vice President Mike Pence will reportedly be on hand.
Harris’ historic oath
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn in as the first woman, and the first woman of color to the post.
Harris, whose mother and father hail from India and Jamaica, told reporters on Monday that she and Biden are "going into Wednesday knowing that we're ready to do the work — and we've got a lot of work to do. It's not going to be easy."
"There is a lot to do," Harris said. "Some of them say that ours are ambitious goals, but we do believe with hard work and with the cooperation and collaboration of the members of the United States Congress, that we can get it done."