President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday will look like no inauguration before it in American history.
Biden will take the oath of office in front of a sparse crowd amid a global pandemic and with an unprecedented military mobilization in Washington, D.C., aimed at securing a U.S. Capitol where police were overwhelmed just two weeks ago by a mob whipped up over conspiracy theories about his electoral win.
The inauguration was going to look and feel differently even before the disastrous events of Jan. 6, given the dangers of COVID-19.
Biden’s team has urged people to stay home, and the 200,000 tickets that would go out in a normal year have been reduced to only about 1,000 members of Congress, past presidents and dignitaries.
But the inauguration has taken on a much darker tone since the ransacking of the Capitol, which has once again exposed the deep political fissures in the nation while raising the degree of difficulty for Biden to tackle the challenges facing the country.
President Trump, who is facing a second impeachment trial in the Senate over his role in the riot, will be the first sitting president since 1869 to not attend the inauguration. A not-insubstantial portion of the Republican Party still refuses to recognize the victory by the incoming president, who in his address is expected to plead for the nation to unite to meet the challenge of the pandemic and other issues and to move beyond the political warfare that has dominated the last four years.
Historians say there has never been an inauguration to take place under such extreme circumstances in the modern political era.
They point back to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration during the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt’s swearing in during the Great Depression as the last time an incoming president took the oath of office facing these levels of discord and uncertainty.
“It doesn’t get more unique than this,” said Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University.
“To have the combination of, before last week, just the inability to hold the number of traditions normally because you don’t want people together ... and now added to that is a major national security threat. I think this is as unusual as we have seen and I think it has left all of the officials ... unsure about exactly what to do,” he said.
There will be 21,000 National Guard soldiers in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, many of them armed.
The military has constructed a “Green Zone” around the Capitol where workers have erected fencing with razor wire.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency has picked up on “extensive” online chatter about potentially violent protests and rallies both in D.C. and at state capitols across the country.
On Sunday evening, there were reports that National Guard troops were being vetted to protect from “insider” attacks.
In a briefing with Vice President Pence, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson described the National Guard’s efforts to protect Biden and keep the peace using terms that are normally reserved for overseas military operations.
“I visit with these men and women every night and they understand the importance of this mission,” Hokanson said. “They are also proven, prepared and proud to do their part to ensure a peaceful and safe inauguration of our incoming commander-in-chief.”
Transportation into Washington has been sharply curtailed. The National Mall, usually the site of massive gatherings of ordinary Americans making the journey to Washington to celebrate the historic day, will be closed.
There will be limited areas for demonstrations, but D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has been pleading with the Department of Homeland Security to limit activity across the city.
“The military portion of this just looks awful,” said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who worked with Biden for 16 years in the Senate but will not be making the trip for the inauguration. “It’s just totally uncharacteristic for the United States and it’s hard to accept there will be 20,000 troops there at the Capitol. It’s just unheard of.”
David Kessler, the co-chair of the COVID-19 Advisory Board and the head of Operation Warp Speed, has acted as the inaugural committee’s chief medical expert and has been advising on how to conduct a ceremony that does not become a superspreader event.
Many of the premier activities surrounding the inauguration will be streamed online or broadcast on television, rather than taking place in person, including a virtual parade across the country and a star-studded prime-time special that will air Wednesday night.
But the Biden team is pressing forward with some of the traditions and iconic moments that symbolize the peaceful transfer of power.
The president-elect will speak from the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, saying he’s “not afraid” to appear in public.
There will be a “Pass in Review” on the East Front of the Capitol, a tradition involving every branch of the military in which the new commander in chief reviews the readiness of the troops.
Biden will receive a presidential escort from 15th Street down to the White House, although there will not be the traditional large crowds to wave him on and cheer as he passes.
Biden’s team hopes the events will set the tone for his presidency under the theme of “America United.”
The five days of inaugural programming will include a national day of service, a nationwide memorial to those who have died of the coronavirus and a “Field of Flags” that will cover the National Mall to represent those who could not travel to Washington for the inauguration.
“He is coming into the presidency at a moment of crisis in the country ... and he wants to use the moment to call Americans to unity,” said Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Longtime political observers say Biden will have to summon all of his instincts and insight from a lifetime in politics to meet the moment.
“Biden faces a troubling combination of 1861 and 1933 — an economic crisis worsened by deep political and demographic divisions,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Biden's challenge is to pursue policies equal in scope to the problems they address while cooling the temperature and narrowing partisan antipathy. This balancing act will test the political skills and experience he has gained in nearly half a century of public life in Washington.”