The 2021 Inauguration: A Pivotal Moment for American Democratic Systems and a Chance to Reflect on the Possibilities that Come with a New Administration

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“US Capitol” by keithreifsnyder is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Aiden Fel, Staff Writer

President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were inaugurated as the 46th president and 49th vice president of the United States, respectively, on Wednesday, January 20th. This momentous event holds great historical significance as it marks the peaceful transfer of power from the outgoing president to their successor. This hallowed American tradition can be traced back to the 1800s and what would be coined the “Revolution of 1800.” The election of 1800 was the first time there was a peaceful transition of power in America following a popular election that had been bitterly contested, ultimately resulting in the Republican party led by Thomas Jefferson controlling both the executive and legislative branches. During this electoral contest, both the Republican party and their opponents, the Federalist party, understood that it was the fundamental integrity of democratic principles that were at stake in this two-party conflict. The electoral Revolution of 1800 demonstrates that even political parties that harbor deep distrust for one another and express serious concerns regarding the character and policies of their opponents can nevertheless come together in accepting the outcome of an election. The events of 1800 marked what would become a hallmark of America: the peaceful, democratic transfer of political power. In many respects, this year’s inauguration was a divergence from historical precedent, as the outgoing president was notably absent from the proceedings (marking the first time since Andrew Johnson’s no-show in 1869 that the sitting president did not attend the inauguration) and a continuity in others as the pomp and circumstance of the event continued to show the ability of American democracy to prevail under the most extraordinary of circumstances. 

For over 150 years, every presidential inauguration has been adorned by the diplomatic smiling of faces and shaking of hands between the outgoing and incoming presidents. The events of Wednesday, lacking the usual hand shaking and mingling as a result of COVID-19 safety precautions, were striking in comparison to the violent cacophony of events that had occurred just two weeks earlier on the steps of the building in which Biden delivered his inaugural address. The halls of the Capitol through which Biden, Harris, and members of state travelled through Wednesday morning bore witness to the storming of the Capitol by rioters and were so recently strewn with broken glass, trash, and blood. The riots at the Capitol building, marring the peaceful transition of power that occurs between administrations, have much to do with president Trump’s delayed concession and the inaction of lawmakers in previous years. 

On January 8, over two months after Biden was officially declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump conceded the election through a Twitter video after weeks of claiming the election was fraudulent and had been rigged. Presidential transitions are junctions that pose great vulnerabilities to the country and the truncating of the transition period during the two months of protests and legal battles on the part of the president and his team represent potential risks to American national security that could potentially be exploited by foreign or domestic adversaries. American history is indicative of this. In the years following 9/11, the 9/11 Commission found that the lack of communication between George W. Bush’s transition team and the Clinton administration, the six months it took for the Bush administration’s national security team to be established after he took office, and the rushed Bush transition caused by the delayed outcome of the election results (the Florida recount and subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court were lengthy) all contributed to the September 11th attacks and the uncoordinated response that followed. America is once again faced with serious threats from enemies both foreign and domestic and a virus that has yet to be under control in our nation. The Trump administration’s prolonged refusal to concede the election and grant the Biden transition team authorization to the daily security briefings (which are designed to ensure the safety of the United States and prevent breaches in national security) have highlighted the neglect of President Trump to provide his successor with the materials he needed to be prepared for his new office. In spite of the lack of frequent communication between the Trump administration and Biden transition team, the inauguration went ahead as planned. 

The theme for the 2021 inauguration was “America United,” a theme the inaugural committee shared was meant to “reflect the beginning of a new national journey that restores the soul of America, brings the country together, and creates a path to a brighter future.” President Trump’s refusal to participate in the proceedings reflects an America that is currently divided. However, this was not always the case. The transition period between administrations has often included moments of authentic comradery between political parties, with presidents putting aside their differences for the sake of a peaceful transfer of power. This transpired on January 20th, 1993– President Clinton’s first day in office. When Clinton entered the Oval Office, he found a note addressed to him by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, on the Resolute Desk. The note read, “Dear Bill, When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too. I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck– George.” 

With some Americans encouraged by the promise of a new administration, Biden’s historic inauguration encapsulated the heart of one of his favorite quotes by acclaimed Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.” During this time of prodigious complexity in the history of the United States, the hope that lies in an administration with a female vice president and the recurring call for unity made by Biden in his inaugural address represent the possibility for the people of this nation to rise up as one in harmonic chorus, pushing for change. With the eyes of people across the country and throughout the world turning to Biden and his team, the awesome responsibility to quell alienation between political parties, possibility to refocus national discord, and promise to mend the wounds left by the polarization of the Trump presidency now rests with them. 

Disclaimer: This article used information from CNN, Today, USA Today, Center for Presidential Transition, and Teaching American History to help write this piece.