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A day of firsts: five key takeaways from Biden's historic inauguration

Maanvi Singh
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It was a day of historic firsts

With her hand on two Bibles – one from the late Thurgood Marshall, the first Black supreme court justice, and one from family friend Regina Shelton – Kamala Harris became the first woman, and the first Black and South Asian American woman, to become the vice-president. She was sworn in by the supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the nation’s highest court. It was an emotional moment for many across the country. “In tears watching this extraordinary moment for women in the US and the world,” said Oprah Winfrey.

Related: The star-packed inauguration special: a dull yet competent plea for unity

Soon after her inauguration, Harris swore Democrats Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff and Alex Padilla into the Senate. Warnock is the first Black senator from Georgia, and Ossoff is the first Jewish senator from the state. Padilla, who was appointed to take the California Senate seat vacated by Harris, is the first Latino senator to represent a state where Latino residents make up 40% of the population.

“As I traveled to Washington from Los Angeles, I thought about my parents and the sacrifices they made to secure the American dream for their son,” Padilla said.

“It’s a new day, full of possibility,” said Warnock, who has the unique title of “senator reverend” – his last job was pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr used to preach.

A new Senate later voted to confirm Avril Haines as the director of national intelligence – and she became the first woman to hold the post.

The pandemic cast a pall over the day

The US Capitol is shown at sunset on the day of Joe Biden&#x002019;s inauguration.
The US Capitol is shown at sunset on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Reuters

The inauguration took place amid a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans. An event that would normally have drawn a crowd of hundreds of thousands instead saw a far smaller audience, with attendees donning face masks and practicing social distancing.

In lieu of an inaugural ball, Biden and Harris held a virtual celebration, which the Guardian’s arts writer Adrian Horton describes as a “seamless Zoom compilation” of speeches and performances. There were cheery, even joyful moments. Harris was escorted to the White House by the famed Showtime Marching Band of Howard University, her alma mater.

But there was a heaviness hanging over the day. In his inaugural address, Biden said: “I would like to ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.

“To those 400,000 fellow Americans – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. We will honor them by becoming the people and nation we know we can and should be.”

Reversing Trump’s legacy was Biden’s first order of business

Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on 20 January.
Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on 20 January. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Just hours after taking office, Biden signed a stack of 17 executive actions aimed at reversing Donald Trump’s legacy on public health, immigration and the climate crisis.

His first move was to mandate masks and physical distancing in federal buildings, and on federal land. In a sharp contrast to his predecessor, who denied public health research and refused to cover his face, Biden did so while wearing a mask.

The 46th president halted Trump’s travel ban aimed at Muslim-majority countries, ended emergency funding for the construction Trump’s border wall, and moved to rejoin the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization.

Biden also ended the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, which is used to determine how many seats in Congress each state gets. “I think some of the things we’re going to be doing are bold and vital, and there’s no time to start like today,” he said.

There was a return to presidential norms

Many Americans rightly point out that we shouldn’t long for a return to normal, after the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice reckoning made clear that normal wasn’t working.

As the poet Amanda Gorman asserted, in her inauguration performance, “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice.”

With normalcy out of the question, Biden nonetheless reinstated some presidential norms and traditions. He’s bringing dogs back to the White House after his predecessor became the first president in a century to refuse a presidential pet. He had his executive orders fully vetted by the Office of Legal Counsel, “underscoring a commitment to regular order/rule of law,” NPR’s justice department correspondent Carrie Johnson wrote.

One of the most significant norms to return: daily press briefings. During a cordial first briefing, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered some questions, obfuscated a bit, and promised to return the next day. After weeks and weeks without a coronavirus update from top health officials, Psaki promised that those become a regular affair as well.

Journalists will still have to maintain their skepticism. But after the hostile, fantastical – and ultimately absent – press briefings of the Trump era, hearing Psaki say, “I’d love to take your questions,” came as a relief to many in the press corps.

The outfits were inspirational

George W Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive for Joe Biden&#x002019;s inauguration.
George W Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive for Joe Biden’s inauguration. Photograph: Reuters

Yes, it was a grave, historic, momentous day. But did you see Michelle Obama’s Coat? Or Jill Biden’s? Or Kamala Harris’ suffragette-purple? Or Bernie Sanders’ cozy beige Burton and scene-stealing mittens?

It was a big day for coats, gloves and mittens. While Obama’s flawless monochromatic maroon look by the Black designer Sergio Hudson drew gasps, Sanders’ grumpy-chic, eco-friendly knitwear look launched a thousand, or ten thousand memes. Amid the array of sartorial choices, there was something for everyone. Janet Yellen’s was blanketed. Harris’ daughter Ella Emhoff wore bedazzled Miu Miu.

Honored guests and dignitaries, young and old, all served us thrilling looks. There was baby Beau Biden in a navy bonnet. Kamala Harris’s niece Meena Harris rocked sparkly cowboy boots, and her husband, Nikolas Ajagu, came in Air Jordan Dior 1s.

It was a nice reprieve to admire, for a few moments, some fun clothes – before we again had to grapple with the many, many struggles and challenges that still lay ahead.