U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are putting a large focus of their first full day in office on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.
Biden is scheduled to speak Thursday about the administration’s plans and to sign executive orders and other actions related to combating COVID-19.
Both Biden and Harris are then due to be briefed by their coronavirus team, including information about the current state of vaccination programs being carried out throughout the country.
Biden set a goal of boosting vaccinations at the start of his term to amass 100 million doses given in the first 100 days.
Vaccinations in the United States began in mid-December with a focus on frontline health care workers and those living in long-term care facilities. As of Wednesday morning, 16.5 million doses had been administered, according to data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. The two vaccines given emergency approval in the United States each require a two-shot regimen.
Virtual prayer service
Biden and his wife, Jill, along with Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, started Thursday by participating in a virtual Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service hosted by the Washington National Cathedral.
Biden was sworn in Wednesday as the 46th U.S. president and called on Americans to unite in support of each other in what he called “a winter of peril and significant possibilities.”
At 78, Biden became the country’s oldest leader after serving 36 years as a U.S. senator and eight as vice president. He took the presidential oath of office on the steps of the Capitol on a chilly, wind-swept day.
Shortly before, Harris, a former senator from California, was sworn in as vice president, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the country’s history. She is of Black and Indian heritage.
Call for unity
In his inaugural address, Biden promised to be the president of all Americans, not just those who voted for him in his November election victory over former President Donald Trump.
Trump became the first president in 152 years to skip his successor’s inauguration and instead left Washington before the ceremony to head to his Florida mansion as his term ended.
“To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy,” Biden said.
But he said, “We must end this uncivil war” pitting Americans against each other.
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors,” he said. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature."
He also pledged to be honest with the country as it faces a soaring number of coronavirus infections, a death toll that has topped 400,000 and a battered economy that has brought financial pain to millions of Americans.
Biden promised “to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” He did not mention Trump in his address or the former president’s baseless contention that rampant fraud cost him another four-year term in the White House.
“The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded," Biden said. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious, and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
“This is America’s day,” he said. “This is democracy’s day. A day in history and hope, of renewal and resolve.”
Hours after his inauguration, Biden, who served eight years as vice president under former President Barack Obama, signed a number of executive orders and other presidential actions.
Among them were reengaging with the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, reversing Trump’s ban on entry to the United States from several primarily Muslim countries, launching a government effort to advance racial equity in the United States, boosting protections for people who entered the country illegally as minors and challenging Americans to do “their patriotic duty” by wearing masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Arriving at the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, Biden said that Trump had left him a “very generous letter.” Biden refused to give more details, indicating that the letter was “private.”
First press briefing
Later in the afternoon, press secretary Jen Psaki held the administration’s first press briefing, emphasizing that the administration respected a free press and was committed to being transparent.
In response to a question on how Biden planned to restore the U.S. reputation globally, Psaki said “his priority is first rebuilding our partnerships and alliances around the world.”
The morning’s swearing-in ceremonies were witnessed by three former presidents — Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — and former first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Normally, U.S. presidential inaugurations draw thousands of well-wishers, but not this time. Access to the National Mall in front of the Capitol was sharply restricted both for security reasons and the fear that letting people jam together would add to the soaring number of coronavirus infections in the United States. Instead of people on the Mall, thousands of red, white and blue American flags whipped in the wind.
The usual throng of Washington dignitaries witnessing a presidential inauguration was sharply limited in the seats behind Biden and Harris. Chairs for some of the invited guests were widely spaced in line with coronavirus restrictions recommended by health authorities, and those attending all wore face masks.
The ceremony was conducted amid extraordinary security, with tall metal fencing topped by razor wire surrounding the inauguration site after intelligence reports warned that Trump supporters angered by the congressionally certified outcome of the ex-president's defeat could attempt to disrupt the ceremony.
But the day’s events at the Capitol were peaceful.
The inauguration took place two weeks to the day after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.
A week ago, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting insurrection by urging thousands of his supporters at a Jan. 6 rally to walk to the Capitol to confront lawmakers. Even though his term has ended, Trump is facing a Senate impeachment trial in the coming days.
The Bidens and Harris and her husband began Wednesday attending a church service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. At Biden’s invitation, they were joined by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
By the time the service started, Trump had left the White House. Outgoing Vice President Mike Pence skipped the Trump sendoff but attended Biden’s inauguration with his wife Karen and exchanged pleasantries with Harris and Emhoff.
After the inauguration ceremony, Biden and Harris headed to Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Bush, Clinton and Obama also participated.
Wednesday evening, which is typically filled with extravagant balls on Inauguration Day, instead featured a television special called Celebrating America with musical performances from John Legend, Katy Perry, the Foo Fighters and Justin Timberlake.
Biden addressed the event as well, telling Americans, “I will give my all to you.”
“This is a great nation,” he said. “We're a good people. And to overcome the challenges in front of us requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity. It requires us to come together in common love that defines us as Americans, opportunity, liberty, dignity and respect, and to unite against common foes, hate, violence, disease and hopelessness. America's story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people.”
Wednesday also brought demonstrations by protesters carrying anti-Biden and anti-police signs in the northwestern city of Portland, Oregon. Some in the group vandalized a Democratic Party office and other buildings. Federal law enforcement officers used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters.