Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on 20 January 2021. President-elect Biden received 306 electoral college votes, compared to 232 votes for the incumbent president Donald Trump, in the November 2020 presidential election.
The logistics of a presidential inauguration are primarily overseen by two committees:
- the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is responsible for conducting the official swearing-in of the president- and vice president-elect, organising the subsequent luncheon and distributing blocks of tickets to the event to members of both Houses of Congress; and
- the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), which plans all other events for the day, such as the order of service, parade and balls. The committee is made up mainly of volunteers and is formed shortly after the November election.
Following an election, a new term of Congress starts on 3 January. The period between election day and the start of the next term is referred to as a ‘lame duck session’ as members of Congress who have lost their seats at the last election will still be present until the new term starts.
The time between the election and the inauguration is used by the president-elect and their team to choose their cabinet, appoint key staff members and plan for the new administration. During this period, the president-elect also receives daily national intelligence briefings.
When is the presidential inauguration?
Presidential inaugurations take place on 20 January after the November election. If this date falls on a Sunday, a private ceremony is held and the public inauguration takes place the next working day.
The US constitution stated that presidential inaugurations should take place on 4 March. The inauguration date was changed to 20 January in 1933 by the 20th amendment to the constitution (nicknamed the ‘lame duck amendment’). This amendment also changed the start date of the incoming Congress from 4 March to 3 January.
The change of the inauguration date was believed to be for both practical and political reasons. Prior to 1933, two practical elements needed to be completed before the inauguration could take place, and these took longer in the 18th century than they did by 1933. These were:
- counting and ratifying the election results; and
- allowing time for the president-elect and newly elected members of Congress to travel between their homes and Washington DC.
The very first presidential inauguration for President George Washington had to be pushed back to 30 April due to delays in counting ballots and the length of time it would take him to travel from Virginia (his home state) to Washington DC.
Politically, some have argued that the change in date was to prevent an unelected Congress making important decisions in the time between the election and start of the new Congress. However, John Copeland Nagle, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, has argued that the 20th amendment has not fulfilled this purpose. He has said that several big policy decisions have been made during this so-called ‘lame duck session’, namely:
- The impeachment of President Bill Clinton (December 1998).
- The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the policy which prevented military personnel from being openly gay while serving (December 2010).
- The extension of President Bush’s tax cuts (November 2010).
What happens during the presidential inauguration?
The US constitution does not say where the inauguration should take place. Since 1981, presidential inaugurations have been held in front of the west side of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. Before this time, presidents have been sworn-in in places such as the Chambers of Congress, on the east side of the US Capitol, or in the White House.
During the inauguration the president-elect takes the oath of office. This is usually administered by the Chief Justice of the United States (currently John Roberts), or another Supreme Court judge. The oath states:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Following the oath, the president delivers the first speech of their administration, referred to as ‘the inaugural address’. This speech is the president’s first chance to set out their vision for the upcoming four years; it usually has a theme of unity and bipartisanship.
Following the oath and inaugural address, there is usually a parade and several balls are held in the evening.
What happened during Joe Biden’s inauguration?
In December 2020, the Biden campaign team said that the president-elect’s inauguration would be scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Following a violent protest at the US Capitol by pro-Trump supporters on 6 January 2021, heightened security concerns also affected plans for the day.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden campaign team had already “strongly encouraged” people not to travel to Washington DC. for the event. It was reported that the campaign had only released about 1,000 tickets for the event—roughly one for each member of Congress and a guest—compared to the usual allocation of 200,000 tickets.
Prior to the event, the Washington Post reported that the Secret Service and federal police would engage in “a security mobilisation that will be unlike any in modern US history” to ensure the inauguration was not interrupted. Measures that were implemented included:
- A 7-foot tall fence topped with razor wire was installed around the US Capitol a week before the event.
- The National Guard were deployed to keep constant watch around the area.
- The National Mall (the area directly in front of the US Capitol), was closed to visitors between 15 and 21 January 2021.
The inauguration of the then president- and vice-president-elect did take place outside on the west side in front of the Capitol building. Vice president Kamala Harris, the first female and the first black and Asian-American vice president, took her oath of office from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice of the Supreme Court. President Joe Biden then took his oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts, using a 5-inch thick bible that has been in his family since 1893.
There were musical performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks during the ceremony, as well as a poem performed by the US’s first youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman. Following the inauguration, President Biden was joined by former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. President Trump announced in a tweet on 8 January 2021 that he would not be attending the ceremony.
On the evening of 20 January 2021, a 90-minute ‘virtual parade’ was held, broadcast on television and online. Hosted by Tom Hanks, the show featured performances from artists such as Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, John Legend and the Foo Fighters. It also paid tribute to the country’s key workers, such as teachers and health care workers, for their efforts during the pandemic.
- House of Lords Library, ‘Covid-19 and the US election: Voting during a pandemic’, 6 October 2020
- House of Lords Library, ‘Covid-19 and the US election: Campaigning’, 27 October 2020
- Jon Russell, The complete book of inaugural addresses of the Presidents of the United States: 1789 to 2001: from George Washington to George W. Bush, 2001
- Sidney M Milkis and Michael Nelson, The American presidency: origins and development, 1776–2018, 2nd ed, 2019
Cover image by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash.
Originally published on 19 January 2021. Updated on 9 February 2021.