Joe Biden ascends to the presidency on Wednesday with an inaugural speech outlining how he’ll tackle the health and economic crises he inherits while attempting to knit the country back together, just two weeks after the outgoing president’s loyalists waged a deadly riot to block the change of power.
The incoming president will call on the U.S. to abandon the divisiveness stoked by Donald Trump, whose four-year term ends with nearly 400,000 Americans dead of COVID-19, a sharp economic downturn and the worst political crisis since Watergate, after the Capitol attack.
Biden’s address will seek to bridge the nation’s deepening political divide by summoning support from people who didn’t vote for him as well as those who did, according to advisers and allies. To do that, he’ll have to move beyond his penchant for saying what’s on his mind — such as remarks Friday in which he told Republican lawmakers who refuse to wear masks to “grow up.”
His message of unity will also be tested by Democrats’ impeachment of Trump last week over the riot. Their plans to try the ex-president in the Senate after he leaves office risk overshadowing the early days of Biden’s presidency and fanning the very flames of partisanship that Biden seeks to douse.
The inaugural address will be the highest-profile speech of Biden’s nearly half century in politics. While he will soberly address the difficult challenges ahead, his remarks are expected to be optimistic, stressing that with the right policies and a glimmer of comity in Washington, the country can find its way to a better position than before the pandemic.
The speech is likely to contrast markedly from Trump’s inaugural address in 2017, in which he famously declared he would end “American carnage” in the streets of U.S. cities.
If Democrats watched Trump’s address in 2017 still dumbstruck that it was him standing there and not Hillary Clinton, Republicans watching Biden might feel that same sense of disbelief as the Democratic leader pleads for unity barely a week after his party impeached Trump. Biden had expressed misgivings about sanctioning Trump over the riots with less than two weeks left in office but could do little to keep lawmakers angered by the attack on the Capitol from forging ahead with impeachment.
“He takes office at a very difficult time, perhaps the most difficult time that any president’s taken office since Roosevelt, and he comes into office determined to get to work on these crises immediately,” said Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff. Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933 with the U.S. still mired in depression and Adolf Hitler on the cusp of taking over Germany.
Klain said Biden will sign more executive actions on his first day than any other president, in part to overturn policies unilaterally adopted by Trump. They’re expected to include orders to end a ban on travel from some predominantly Muslim nations and to rejoin the Paris climate accord.
Biden’s inauguration as the 46th U.S. president will be unlike any other in modern history. Washington, D.C., is now a fortified city, with rings of security around the Capitol, White House and National Mall and thousands of armed soldiers guarding against another attack by Americans who refuse to accept Trump’s defeat.