Inauguration Day is as historically rooted as it is dynamic, ever reflective of the society each incoming leader exists in. As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths, the backdrop is unlike any before- one of face masks and distance, of heightened security and a loud absence of both the usual crowds and the expected individuals.
Over more than two centuries, the making and breaking of inauguration tradition has set precedent for both the incoming administration and the future of the office itself.
If not for the pandemic, the National Mall leading to the Capitol would be filled with citizens bearing witness to the start of the new term.
President Reagan was the first to take the oath on the West Front rather than the East Portico, changing a tradition that had existed for over a century. The move provided more space for crowds, and an aptly cinematic setting for a man who found his fame in Hollywood.
Aerial photographs of the Mall became integral to inauguration coverage, with estimates of spectator turnout acting as an unofficial gauge of presidential popularity.
President Obama is widely accepted to have drawn the largest crowd of any inauguration, in testimony to the hope and historical significance appointment carried.
This left a daunting legacy for his successor. Accusing media organisations of lying about turnout figures whilst himself claiming a record-breaking number, Trump’s Inauguration Day arguably set his own kind of presidential precedent; one of media-scepticism and hyperbole out-shouting fact.
Though Biden and Harris will take their oaths overlooking the Mall, the no-travel orders in place ensure the park remains deserted. Instead, thousands of state flags are said to represent Americans whose lives were lost in the pandemic.
It is a solemn display for the incoming President and Vice President to look out on, a visceral reminder of the troubles of the nation they must lead back to normality.
The United States prides itself on a courteous transition between Presidents, a tradition that finds uneasy grounding in current times. Never one to follow an institutional rule-book, outgoing President Trump will not attend the inauguration or welcome the incoming First Family to the White House as is customary and as the Obamas did for him four years ago.
He became only the fourth President to boycott his successor’s inauguration over political differences; the last was Andrew Johnson, whose absence was representative of a fractured country in the wake of the Civil War.
Though Biden claims Trump’s avoidance of the event will allow his term a cleaner beginning, it is clear that despite the popular vote his accession is tainted by a deeply felt hostility of many still loyal to the former President.
Amongst the fluctuating traditions and circumstances, two central elements of the ceremony remain: the oath itself and the inaugural speech that succeeds it.
Since George Washington took to the office for the first time, an address has been made by the incoming president to begin their term in their own words. Thematically, these speeches tread common ground, elegising the United States and expressing a heartfelt support for democracy whilst opposing any ideologies that threaten it.
For Truman, this was communism; for Bush it was more broadly ‘tyranny’. Today, it seems the challenge for democracy lies within its very institutions.
Biden’s speech can set a new precedent, steering away from the danger of divisive rhetoric superseding fact. His promise of national reconciliation convinced many voters, and Inauguration Day offers as big a platform as any to lay the groundwork.
Following the inauguration ceremony, the tradition of holding an open White House lasted until the late 19th century. Citizens and statesmen alike could greet the President in his new home, an affair that allegedly led Andrew Jackson to escape out of a window when drunk masses derailed his party.
This was replaced by a parade from the Capitol, a tradition that has held until today. Far from the jubilant celebrations from inaugurations past, barricades and members of the National Guard line Pennsylvania Avenue where supporters would usually gather.
In a Covid-safe adaptation, a virtual ‘Parade Across America’ will be livestreamed by the Biden/Harris inaugural team, tailored to feature leaders, citizens and public figures representative of the communities watching.
Though the event may be physically distanced, social media, streaming platforms and television allow as many Americans as ever access to this moment in their nation’s history.
Some of the greatest changes in Inauguration Day tradition have been driven by the technological advancements of the past centuries. When James Buchanan’s inauguration in 1857 became the first to be photographed, the ceremony began a transition from a guarded ritual to a collective experience.
The ceremony has been televised live since Truman’s second inauguration and shared on the Internet since Clinton’s in 1997. Such developments have allowed people globally a unifying access to the newcomers’ first day, yet with this wide reach comes great responsibility.
The inaugural speeches must land in people’s living rooms, the message resonating with the masses watching, supporter or not, voter or not.
As traditions are adapted to accommodate the needs of the present, the abnormality of this inauguration is representative of a country upturned by a pandemic and still shaken by an attempted coup.
The missing crowds, intense security, and absent former President indicate the magnitude of the task ahead for President Biden and Vice President Harris, who must win the trust of a nation that has just seen a President impeached twice in four years.
It is worth remembering that, of many, one long-standing tradition is significant in its breaking. As the first woman and second Black person elected to the Vice Presidency, Kamala Harris establishes her own kind of precedent.
Hopefully, this is one that will last for the next two centuries.
Image: Wikimedia Commons