Inauguration 2021: Joe Biden takes oath in presidential transition like no other

January 20, 2021

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, as their children Ashley and Hunter watch.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

It was an inauguration like no other.

In a city on high alert and amid a still-raging pandemic, Joe Biden took the oath of office Wednesday, becoming the 46th president of the United States, declaring it a victory for “the cause of democracy.”

“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Biden said in his inaugural address after being administered the oath office by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. “Today, we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy.”

The swearing-in took place from the same Capitol steps overrun by a mob of Trump supporters exactly two weeks ago, seeking to disrupt lawmakers from formally counting the electoral votes that affirmed Biden’s victory in last fall’s presidential contest.

The traditional festivities were held under tight security measures with a vastly reduced guest list because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic also led to some other changes, including a virtual “parade across America,” which featured the presidential motorcade traveling through D.C. on its way to the White House and performances from across the county.

As the motorcade approached the White House at the beginning of the parade, the new president, the first lady and other members of their family exited the motorcade and walked the remainder of the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue, where small crowds and members of the media had gathered.

At one point, Biden called out, “Madam Mayor!” and approached D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was on the sidelines, to greet her.

Shortly afterward, Biden entered the White House for the first time since being sworn in.

Eager to get started with an ambitious first 100 days, Biden signed a series of executive actions hours after being sworn, including to reenter the Paris Climate Accords and to mandate mask wearing on federal property, The Associated Press reported.

“There’s no time to start like today,” Biden said as he signed the actions in the Oval Office.

And in a first vote, the Senate confirmed Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines.

Crews started removing barriers and fencing on several D.C. streets, and the work will take about 36 hours. Garages that were blocked as a precaution were also reopened.

“So what you’ll see is that some of the barriers and fencing will be moved out of the way, out of the roadways,” D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio said. “We hope to have things back open in the central business district by Friday morning.”

Falcicchio said that the pause on indoor dining put in place due to the inauguration is set to expire on Friday, and restaurants will be able to return to indoor dining at 25% capacity.

One element of security not vanishing any time soon are National Guard troops. Some 25,000 were deployed in the District following the riot at the Capitol. While some troops are being withdrawn, others will remain.

“We do think that there’s most likely to be a little more presence in the days and weeks ahead,” Falcicchio said.

The National Mall is scheduled to remain closed until at least Friday.

Biden calls for unity, pledges to be a president for all Americans

In the inaugural address, which ran about 20 minutes, Biden acknowledged the difficult challenges he will face as president.

Referring to the coronavirus pandemic, which officially claimed 400,000 U.S. lives the day before Biden took the oath, the new president spoke of a “winter of peril and significant possibilities.”

Under sunny skies and at-times gusty breezes, Biden paused the speech for a brief moment of silence to remember the lives lost to COVID-19.

“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” Biden said, but referencing the well-worn Bible verse, he said “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. We will get through together — together!”

Read and watch Biden’s full inaugural address

Acknowledging the deep divisions in the county, Biden called for unity and pledged to be a president for all Americans.

Referencing Abraham Lincoln when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Biden said, “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation.”

Leading up to Biden’s swearing-in, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the high court, administered the oath of office to Vice President Kamala Harris shortly after 11:40 a.m. Harris takes office as the first woman, the first Black woman and the first person of Asian descent to serve as vice president.

Harris’ former intern Hazel Rosenblum remembered her personality and energy, and how the then-senator treated her interns well.

“I loved working for her. It was the best experience of my life,” Rosenblum said.

The inauguration, a time-honored tradition of the American political system, came amid unprecedented security following the deadly siege of the Capitol. Thousands of National Guard troops from across the country were on patrol, the National Mall was fenced off to visitors and revelers asked to stay home, and a large swath of downtown D.C. was essentially locked down.

Even before the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago, the inauguration was shaping up to be different because of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing guidelines put the kibosh on large crowds, and plans for a virtual parade replaced the traditional jaunt down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Outgoing President Donald Trump did not attend the ceremonies, becoming the first president to skip his successor’s swearing-in since Andrew Johnson skipped the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869.

Though the National Mall was empty of visitors and instead filled with flags whipping in the breeze, the ceremony did provide the traditional pomp and circumstance associated with inaugurations past.

With the exception of Trump, and 96-year-old Jimmy Carter and 93-year-old Rosalynn Carter, all of the former living presidents and first ladies were in attendance. Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence attended the inauguration.

In a nod to the violence at the Capitol two weeks ago, Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Police officer, who defended the Capitol from the mob of rioters, leading them away from the Senate chamber, was named the acting deputy House sergeant-at-arms for the occasion and escorted Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff to their spots on the inaugural stand.

The official inauguration was followed by a wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery before Biden headed to the White House.

In place of a traditional inaugural parade was the virtual “Parade Across America,” featuring performances from across the county.

The parade was followed by prime-time special “Celebrating America.” Hosted by Tom Hanks, along with Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria, musical guests included Jon Bon Jovi, the Foo Fighters, John Legend, Demi Lovato, Bruce Springsteen and Justin Timberlake. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda also recited a classic poem.

The day’s events ended with fireworks as singer Katy Perry sang her hit song “Firework.”

Sights and sounds: Tight security, small crowds

As of Wednesday night, two people have been arrested, a spokesperson for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office said. One person was arrested on 17th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW for an unregistered ammunition; another person was arrested on 19th Street NW and H Street NW for possession of a BB gun.

D.C. police, Capitol Police and U.S. Supreme Court Police responded to three bomb threats Wednesday morning that were cleared with no hazard found.

Law enforcement also investigated reports of suspicious packages and a suspicious vehicle. No hazards were found.

WTOP’s reporters were out and around the Capitol and D.C., reporting quiet streets and tight security.

By and large, residents of D.C. appeared to heed the call by local leaders to watch the inaugural ceremonies from home.

“I really want to underscore how deserted it feels compared to how this same area felt four years ago,” WTOP’s Alejandro Alvarez said. “It really is striking, the lack of crowds downtown. … If you didn’t know what was happening, you wouldn’t know that there was about to be an inauguration.”

Biden flags were set up at Black Lives Matter Plaza, one of the few areas downtown that remained open to the public amid the labyrinth of security barricades.

Supporters gathered there listened intently to Biden’s inaugural address. His remarks confronting white supremacy and denouncing the Capitol riots drew large rounds of applause, Alvarez reported.

Read more about the scene from D.C. streets on Inauguration Day

In downtown D.C. earlier Wednesday, WTOP’s Neal Augenstein said there were more reporters in the area of F and 14th streets than members of the general public Wednesday morning. He said there were no crowds at the public checkpoints he passed Wednesday morning.

WTOP’s John Aaron who watched the ceremonies from the lawn of the Capitol’s West Front said the crowd of invited guests there was quite small and socially distanced.

Access to the Capitol was secured by “round after round” of checkpoints, Aaron said Wednesday morning. “It’s a bit intimidating.”

National Guard on the Capitol Grounds were armed and carrying riot shields.

There were intense military checkpoints for vehicles near Union Station, Aaron said, and that concrete barriers as well as tour buses were used to block entrances to the Capitol.

After the deadly riot, the security posture was ratcheted up significantly. All told, some 25,000 National Guard troops were deployed around the city.

D.C. resident Katie Sellers told WTOP that she had mixed feelings about the presence of the troops.

“I think what it stirs up for me is just really sad because I feel that they are needed,” Sellers said.

WTOP’s National Security Correspondent J.J. Green said that the thousands of National Guard troops in the area were prepared for the worst and that the feel is “intense.”

“No U.S. official is going to say this, but every single one of the officers have their weapons nearby and air, land and water assets engaged fully,” Green said. “They’re all looking for anything that doesn’t look or feel right so they can neutralize it immediately.”

He said there were threats from extremist groups over the last few days.

“There hasn’t been anything that authorities aren’t aware of and can’t deal with,” Green said.

As far as when the D.C. area can see some normalcy after the election, Green said it’s going to be some time.

He said the thousands of guards were sent to the Capitol to be there for 30 days.

“I do think that this is going to be a gradual step down from this kind of security,” he said. “Some of the fencing may come down but there is going to be some securing of the Capitol for a while now.”

Getting around: Widespread street, bridge closures

Even after the inauguration ceremony wrapped up, officials were still asking people to stay home and watch the ceremonies from home.

The 3rd Street Tunnel is now open between the freeway and New York Avenue, but there are a slew of road closures across much of downtown D.C. in place until at least Thursday morning.

The road closures are centered around downtown D.C. from the areas around the White House, the National Mall, stretching east to the Capitol.

Below is a map:

Authorities also took the extraordinary step of closing several bridges over the Potomac River from Virginia into D.C., which included:

  • Arlington Memorial Bridge (closed in both directions)
  • Interstate 66/Theodore Roosevelt Bridge
  • Interstate 395/14th Street Bridge

Bridges over the Anacostia River are open to local vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, but closed to commercial vehicles.

The bridges and most of the road closures will remain in place until 6 a.m. Thursday.

There are also disruptions to Metro service, including more than a dozen stations that are closed.

On Inauguration Day, the Pentagon station was closed, meaning Blue and Yellow Lines will pass through the station without stopping.

In addition, 13 other stations within the security perimeter have been closed since the weekend.

They are:

  • Farragut North
  • Judiciary Square
  • Union Station
  • Archives
  • Arlington Cemetery
  • Farragut West
  • McPherson Square
  • Federal Center SW
  • Capitol South
  • Smithsonian
  • Federal Triangle
  • Metro Center
  • Gallery Place

WTOP’s Dick Uliano, John Aaron, Alejandro Alvarez, Valerie Bonk, Neal Augenstein, Ken Duffy, Luke Lukert, and contributed to this report.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up