The next era in the history of the United States has begun in stillness and melancholy.
Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20 at age 78, the oldest of anyone to take that oath of office. Kamala Harris, 56, also began her term as vice president, becoming the first woman, Black or Asian person to hold the post.
The pair swore their oaths at the hushed U.S. Capitol, with no parade, no crowd, and none of the popular passion that typically accompanies a presidential inauguration. The quietude was forced on the organizers by surging coronavirus infections, but also by the Jan. 6 mob assault on Congress. Washington was blanketed in National Guard troops for the inauguration, the capital taking on the aspect of a city under martial law.
Why, ultimately, did the ceremony end up so different from its predecessors? The responsibility for that lies with former President Donald Trump, who wasn't present as Biden took his oath to replace him. The last time an outgoing president skipped the inauguration ceremony was in 1869, after the American Civil War, when Andrew Johnson decided not to attend.
Trump has heaped tremendous burdens on the incoming administration.
Trump policies launched under his "Make America Great Again" slogan repudiated immigrants and refugees, and fueled discrimination. As a result, a deep divide was created within a democratic and tolerant society. His "America First" doctrine -- the relentless pursuit of one-sided advantages for the United States without any consideration for the impact on the international community -- tossed the world to and fro. More than 400,000 lives in the U.S. have been lost to COVID-19 -- the deadly bill for Trump's disregard for the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, and one that continues to grow. And finally, Trump stomped on the will of the American people as expressed in last November's presidential election.
Trump's hold on the White House has resulted in two impeachments, one for allegedly abusing his power to appropriate diplomacy for his own gain, and the other for inciting the rioters to storm the Capitol. He has dragged down the stature of the United States.
No other president before Donald Trump has ever plunged the United States so deeply into the abyss of confusion. It will be Biden's greatest task to restore the country to normalcy.
In his inauguration speech, President Biden delivered a message of unity over division. We can see one side of this approach in the faces of his Cabinet nominees. Women make up half their number, which also includes Black, Asian and Native Americans, and other figures from minority communities. Biden's picks are also heavily centrist, an obvious strategy to help smooth cooperation with the opposition Republican Party.
On his first day in office, Biden signed a slew of executive orders, including to mandate mask-wearing in federal facilities, and rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. These will encourage unity, both internationally and at home.
In his inauguration speech, Biden told the people that "without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury," emphasizing that now is the time to fight the crises of the day.
But the road to making that unity a reality is a hard one.
Long-held trickle-down economic ideology -- that workers will enjoy the benefits when their companies grow rich -- is splitting at the seams, its deficiencies laid bare by the hollowing out of industry by globalization. Meanwhile, the richest Americans now have hundreds of times more wealth than the left-behind middle class. It is obvious that anger over this state of affairs helped fuel Trump's rise.
"I will be a President for all Americans," Biden said in his speech. It goes without saying that many Americans of color are suffering, but so are many white Americans. And if Biden cannot find a way to implement policy that reaches all people in vulnerable positions, regardless of party loyalty, then there can be no national reconciliation.
On diplomacy, Biden stated, "We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again," declaring his intent to restore the U.S. to the role of leader of the postwar international order.
It can be said the moment when the U.S. made its superpower status felt was the 1991 Gulf War, when it led the operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Then Secretary of State James Baker, whose vigorous shuttle diplomacy got the international community behind military action, called the period the peak of American diplomatic and military power. Since then, however, American strength has been sapped badly by the 9.11 terrorist attacks, long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis. Even with Trump gone, there will be no resurrecting the America of the past. The U.S. will need to cooperate with its allies to deal with China and global issues.
One enormous problem facing the new administration is healing the damage done to democracy itself by Trump. President Biden called democracy "precious" and "fragile" in his speech. The spread of lies and disinformation masked as truth across social media is an especially grave problem. If entirely fabricated visions of the world gained popular traction, it would hardly be surprising if a "second Trump" appeared.
Andrew Johnson, who took over from Abraham Lincoln after the latter's assassination, became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached after he expelled political opponents from government. His successor, President Ulysses S. Grant, struggled but also launched Reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War.
Relieve the frustrations of the American people and overcome division through bipartisanship. Cooperate with allies to stand up to authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia. Coordinate with the international community to tackle global problems like climate change and nuclear weapons. These are the tasks facing the newly minted Biden administration. They are all difficult, but they are also all of historic importance.