Joe Biden sworn in as 46th US president

Joe Biden sworn in as 46th US president

Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday.

Biden, 78, took the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at a solemn ceremony at the US Capitol which was snubbed by the outgoing president and took place in the shadow of a raging coronavirus pandemic.

The tense atmosphere in Washington evoked the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln, who was secretly transported to Washington to avoid assassins on the eve of the Civil War, or Roosevelt's inaugural in 1945, when he opted for a small, secure ceremony at the White House in the waning months of World War II.

Before Biden, Kamala Harris was sworn in as US vice president, becoming the first woman, the first Black person and the first Asian American to hold the office.

Biden became the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that had been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

Following his oath of office, Biden celebrated his incoming administration not as a celebration of a candidate but a victory for US democracy, saying more work must be done to heal the nation.

“The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed," Biden said in his inaugural speech. “Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy.”

And then he pivoted to challenges ahead, acknowledging the surging virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the US. Biden looked out over a capital city dotted with empty storefronts that attest to the pandemic's deep economic toll and where summer protests laid bare the nation's renewed reckoning on racial injustice.

“We have much to do in this winter of peril, and significant possibilities: much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain,” Biden said. “Few people in our nation's history have more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now.”

He vowed to defeat political extremism and domestic terror. The US faces “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront, and we will defeat”, he said in his first speech.

After a bitter campaign marked by Trump's allegations of election fraud, Biden struck a conciliatory tone, asking Americans who did not vote for him to give him a chance to be their president as well.

“To overcome these challenges to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity,” he said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this — if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

“Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work on our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said. “It did not happen; it will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanising a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. Biden did not mention Trump by name in the early moments of his inaugural address but alluded to the rifts his predecessor had helped create.

“I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality of racism, nativism, fear, demonisation that have long torn us apart,” Biden said. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, Trump left the White House with his wife Melania just after 8am and went by helicopter to a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews, where he promised supporters “we'll be back in some form” and extolled his administration's successes before flying off to Florida.

Trump refusal to attend his successor's swearing-in breaks with more than a century and a half of political tradition, seen as a way of affirming the peaceful transfer of power.