Democrat Joe Biden has been sworn in as president of the United States, vowing to end the “uncivil war” in a deeply divided country reeling from a battered economy and a raging coronavirus pandemic.
With his hand on a 12cm-thick heirloom Bible that has been in his family for more than a century, Biden took the oath of office administered by US Chief Justice John Roberts that binds the president to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States”.
“Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said in his inaugural address.
“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause: the cause of democracy… At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Biden, 78, became the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington DC that was largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
The norm-defying Trump flouted one last convention on his way out of the White House when he refused to meet with Biden or attend his successor’s inauguration, breaking with a political tradition seen as affirming the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump did not mention Biden by name in his final remarks as president on Wednesday morning – when he touted his government’s record and promised to be back “in some form” – but predicted the new administration will have “great success”.
He boarded Air Force One for the last time and headed to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.
Top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and the party’s congressional leaders, attended Biden’s inauguration, along with former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she was sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina member.
Biden takes office at a time of deep unease, with the country facing what his advisers have described as four compounding crises: the pandemic, the economic downtown, climate change and racial inequality.
He has promised immediate action, including a raft of executive orders on his first day in office.
After a bitter campaign marked by Trump’s allegations of election fraud, Biden struck a conciliatory tone, asking those 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.”
The ceremony on Wednesday unfolded in front of a heavily fortified US Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his claims that the election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes.
The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.
Thousands of National Guard troops were called into the city after the siege, which left five people dead and briefly forced lawmakers into hiding.
Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall on Wednesday was covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from US states and territories.
“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’s inauguration is the zenith of a five-decade career in public service that included more than three decades in the US Senate and two terms as vice president under former president Barack Obama.