WASHINGTON — Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, taking office at a moment of profound economic, health and political crises with a promise to seek unity after a tumultuous four years that tore at the fabric of American society.
With his hand on a five-inch-thick Bible that has been in his family for 128 years, Mr. Biden recited the 35-word oath of office swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” in a ceremony administered by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., completing the process at 11:49 a.m., 11 minutes before the authority of the presidency formally changes hands.
The ritual transfer of power came shortly after Kamala Devi Harris was sworn in as vice president by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, her hand on a Bible that once belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights icon and Supreme Court justice. Ms. Harris’s ascension made her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States and the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second highest office.
The ceremony on a chilly, breezy but sunny day with a smattering of snowflakes brought to a close the stormy and divisive four-year presidency of Donald J. Trump. In characteristic fashion, Mr. Trump once again defied tradition by leaving Washington hours before the swearing in of his successor rather than face the reality of his own election defeat, although Mike Pence, his vice president, did attend.
Mr. Trump flew to Florida, where he plans to live at his Mar-a-Lago estate. But within days, the Senate will open the former president’s impeachment trial on the charge that he incited an insurrection by encouraging the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to stop the formal counting of the Electoral College votes ratifying his defeat.
The sight of the nation’s newly installed president and vice president on the same West Front of the Capitol occupied just two weeks ago by the marauding pro-Trump crowd underscored how surreal the day was. Unlike most inaugurals suffused with joy and a sense of fresh beginning, the festivities on the nation’s 59th Inauguration Day served to illustrate America’s troubles.
Amid fear of further violence, Washington has been transformed into an armed camp, with some 25,000 National Guard troops joining thousands of police officers and a wide swath of downtown blocked off. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, Americans were told to stay away, leading to the eerie spectacle of a new president addressing a largely empty National Mall, filled not with people but with flags meant to represent the absent crowd.
Many of the usual inaugural customs were scrapped because of the virus, including a lunch with congressional leaders in Statuary Hall, the boisterous parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and the gala evening balls where the new president and his wife are typically expected to dance.
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