Biden’s inauguration fills a vacuum in US politics

The strange ceremony marks the beginning of the new president's mammoth task ahead

TOPSHOT - Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol in the background is seen under heavy security in the early hours of January 18, 2021 ahead of Joe Biden's swearing-in inauguration ceremony as the 46th US president in Washington, DC on January 20th.  With war-zone-like security, no crowds and coronavirus distancing for guests, Joe Biden's swearing-in as the 46th US president will be a muted affair unlike any previous inauguration. Where Washington is normally packed with hundreds of thousands of supporters, celebrities, socialites and lobbyists, the US capital is eerily quiet ahead of Biden's big day, which promises to be a mostly televised celebration of democracy.
 / AFP / Eric BARADAT

President-elect Joe Biden will cut a lonely figure today when he swears the oath to faithfully execute the role of America's commander-in-chief. Strict social distancing, face masks, the absence of a crowd of supporters and unprecedented security arrangements will not only represent the traumas that the US has endured in the past year'. It will also present to the world a new administration humbled by the immense task it confronts. We have never seen such an inauguration.

US presidential inaugurations take place at the Capitol building, in symbolic deference to the country's legislative democracy. Two weeks ago, the same building, and the legislative assemblies it houses, was defiled during a riot in which a mob violently forced its way in to try to overturn the results of the election that brought Mr Biden to power. Five people died in the incident.

The voluntary absence of one party to today's transition of power, the departing president, will amplify the tension in the atmosphere. The empty chair will add to the sense among Mr Biden's incoming team that they are not inheriting a well-oiled policymaking apparatus, but rather filling a vacuum.

TOPSHOT - A member of the National Guard walks by a boarded up building with a poster of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on a holiday observed in his name in Washington, DC on January 18, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden as the next US president. The Inauguration is scheduled for January 20, 2021. / AFP / Brendan SMIALOWSKI
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The overarching wish of America's friends will be for Mr Biden to return swiftly to Washington's traditional advocacy for order

Once the ceremony is over, its sober mood will have to be replaced almost immediately by a burst of decisive activity, if President-elect Biden is to deliver on the many promises he has made to supporters. These include eye-watering economic rescue packages, action on climate change and racial justice and, arguably most complex of all, reuniting a country that recently was seeing some of its own citizens attack the centre of their democracy.

On the global stage, Mr Biden will feel less alone. A shakeup in US foreign policy over the past four years has yielded a mixture of positive and negative results. Ally nations will scramble to the new president with requests for support, policy alterations and even trade deals. But the overarching wish of America's friends will be for Mr Biden to return swiftly to Washington's traditional advocacy for order and predictability. And so Mr Biden is expected to revive America's sense of multilateralism, particularly at the UN and other international bodies. Nonetheless, it is a complicated mission. Global geopolitical dynamics have changed, and fully restoring them to something with which Mr Biden and his team are more comfortable is unlikely.

However, the president-elect and his proposed administration have the capacity to achieve stability. Few are as experienced in Washington politics and foreign affairs. But, he will need the strong support of his party's representatives in the legislature, goodwill from his political opponents, help from US allies abroad and, most importantly, the continued confidence of the American public.

Before the journey begins, Mr Biden's team should consider what stability means in today's world. Fundamentally, it boils down to cohesion at home and abroad, and addressing the fears that catalyse division and conflict.

In his transition to commander-in-chief, Mr Biden is crossing the most important threshold in the US political system. Americans, and the world, wish him luck.

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