WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration will look like no other thanks to a once-in-a-century pandemic, security fears triggered by the worst raid on the U.S. Capitol since 1814 and a boycott by the sitting U.S. president.
There won’t be the usual 200,000 special guests watching on packed grandstands at the Capitol, with hundreds of thousands more flag-waving Americans filling the National Mall to bear witness.
Rather, 12-foot fences topped with razor wire encircle a Capitol grounds being guarded by 25,000 National Guard troops in preparation for a potential second attack. The National Mall is largely off-limits to vehicles and pedestrians, and 200,000 American flags have been planted in memory of the nearly 400,000 Americans who have died from the virus. Huge swaths of downtown Washington have been barricaded and are restricted to residents only.
Only about 1,000 members of Congress, governors and their guests — all tested for COVID-19 in the days before being admitted — will be physically present to watch Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take the oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol. Some elected leaders grappling with the rampaging spread of COVID back home, like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, will not attend.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stressed that the smaller crowd is result of the pandemic, not the Jan. 6 attack.
“This was always going to be small. Now with the insurrection … it is necessitated by security to have more security. But it hasn’t changed the nature of the swearing‑in. I think it’s important for people to know that. This is not a concession to the terrorists. It is a recognition of the danger of COVID,” Pelosi told reporters last week.
The ceremony will be livestreamed, with pre-recorded video remarks inserted at various points.
Some of the trappings that Americans are used to seeing at an inauguration will remain. Pop star Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem, and singer Jennifer Lopez will perform. Los Angeles native Amanda Gorman, the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, will read a poem. Biden will give an inaugural address.
But there will be no parade down Pennsylvania Avenue as the new president travels the mile to take residence at the White House, including what has become a traditional short walk for a portion of the trip by the president and first lady.
Instead, Biden will receive a military escort for the few blocks to the White House and a virtual parade will be pieced together from events occurring across the country, including live performances in Washington by the University of Delaware Drumline and the Howard University Drumline — alma maters of Biden and Harris, respectively — several military bands.
There will be less pomp. No luncheon in the Capitol rotunda with representatives and senators. Most members of the House and Senate and their guests will not even be allowed inside the Capitol while Biden is present.
Wednesday evening there will be no inaugural balls. Instead, actor Tom Hanks will hold a 90-minute television special called “Celebrating America” that will feature musical acts and remarks from both Biden and Harris.
It cannot be the inauguration Biden dreamed about in his multiple bids for president. Security concerns prevented him from riding the the train from Delaware to Washington, as he’d hoped, a nod to his decades commuting from Delaware to the U.S. Senate on Amtrak.
The smiling faces of family and supporters that surround him will be masked and socially distanced. There will be far fewer of the congratulatory hand shakes, back slaps and hugs, something understandably hard for Biden, a notoriously tactile man.
Also missing will be the small niceties between the outgoing and incoming presidents that have become tradition.
“The traditions are such that presidents take it as part of their solemn responsibility to ensure a smooth transition of power,” said Russell Riley, presidential historian at the University of Virginia. “We’re in a very different environment now.”
After months of denying the reality of the 2020 election results and just days after being impeached a second time, President Donald Trump is expected to leave Washington before the inaugural ceremony begins.
While Biden was invited to stay in Blair House, the president’s guest house in the White House complex, Trump hasn’t invited his successor to the White House that morning for coffee and a tour. It’s uncertain whether Trump will leave a private note of encouragement for Biden in the Oval Office’s resolute desk like the one he himself received from President Barack Obama, and Obama received from George W. Bush, his predecessor.
Trump will also break with 150 years of precedent by not joining other past presidents at the Capitol to witness the transfer of power.
“President Trump’s absence communicates absolutely the wrong message,” Riley said, undermining confidence in the way the country elects its leaders.
Vice President Mike Pence has said he plans to attend the Capitol festivities, meaning he will be the representative of the former administration.
Missing will be usual images of the new first couple bidding goodbye to the outgoing first couple as they board a helicopter back to their lives as private citizens.
Biden and former Presidents Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton will take part in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery that afternoon.
A flashy inauguration isn’t required in the Constitution, which offers only the date and the words of the oath. And while not every president has held a great affair, each has added to the set of traditions that Americans have grown accustomed to seeing.
Thomas Jefferson strolled by foot to the newly erected Capitol in 1801 and gave a less than 10-minute speech before taking the oath of office inside the Senate chamber. At the start of his second term, Jefferson accidentally created the tradition of an inaugural parade when a collection of supporters joined him on his walk back to the White House.
James and Dolley Madison hosted the first White House reception and ball. Though he was closely flanked by the military on the way, Lincoln led a processional to the Capitol and was sworn in on the East Front, despite the country being on the brink of the Civil War.