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Joe Biden takes the helm with a series of executive actions

Thursday, January 21, 2021

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States yesterday, declaring that “democracy has prevailed” and summoning American resilience and unity to confront the deeply divided nation's historic confluence of crises.

Biden took the oath at a US Capitol that had been battered by an insurrectionist siege just two weeks earlier. On a cold Washington morning dotted with snow flurries, the quadrennial ceremony unfolded within a circle of security forces evocative of a war zone and devoid of crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, Biden gazed out over 200,000 American flags planted on the National Mall to symbolise those who could not attend in person.

“The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We've learned again that democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said. “This is America's day. This is democracy's day. A day in history and hope, of renewal and resolve.”

History was made at his side, as Kamala Harris became the first woman to be vice-president. The former US senator from California is also the first black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice-presidency and the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the US Government.

Biden never mentioned his predecessor, who defied tradition and left town ahead of the ceremony, but his speech was an implicit rebuke of Donald Trump. The new president denounced “lies told for power and for profit” and was blunt about the challenges ahead.

Central among them: the surging virus that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, as well as economic strains and a national reckoning over race.

“We have much to do in this winter of peril, and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain,” Biden said. “Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now.”

Biden was eager to go big early, with an ambitious first 100 days including a push to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass a $1.9-trillion economic relief package. On day one, as part of a push to roll back Trump Administration initiatives, he signed a series of executive actions, including to re-enter the Paris climate accords and to mandate mask-wearing on federal property.

“There's no time to start like today,” Biden said as he signed the actions in the Oval Office.

The absence of Biden's predecessor from the inaugural ceremony underscored the national rift to be healed.

But a bipartisan trio of former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama — were there to witness the ceremonial transfer of power. Trump, awaiting his second impeachment trial, was at his Florida resort by the time the swearing-in took place.

Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanising a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy.

Four years after Trump's “American Carnage” speech painted a dark portrait of national decay, Biden warned that the fabric of the nation's democracy was tearing but expressed faith that it could be repaired.

“I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonisation have long torn us apart,” Biden said. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

The White House, desolate in Trump's waning days, sprang back to life yesterday afternoon, with Biden staffers moving in and new COVID-19 safety measures, like plastic shields on desks, installed.

Biden planned a 10-day blitz of executive orders on matters that don't require congressional approval — a mix of substantive and symbolic steps to unwind the Trump years. Among the planned steps: rescinding travel restrictions on people from several predominantly Muslim countries; rejoining the Paris climate accord; issuing a mask mandate for those on federal property, and ordering agencies to figure out how to reunite children separated from their families after crossing the border.


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