13 Jan 2021

Tight security and star power for Biden-Harris inauguration

11:45 am on 13 January 2021

President-elect Joe Biden will not officially make his move to the White House until inauguration day - a political parade of sorts, when the Democrat and his Vice-President Kamala Harris take the oath of office.

Democratic presidential nominee and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and vice presidential running mate, US Senator Kamala Harris, arrive to conduct their first press conference together in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 12, 2020.

After the Capitol riot, extra security will surround the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Photo: AFP

From the guest list to Covid-19 changes, to new security concerns, here's everything you need to know about the big day.

Taking the oath of office

The inauguration is the formal ceremony that marks the start of a new presidency, and it takes place in Washington DC.

The only required feature is that the president-elect recite the presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Once he utters these words, Biden will then take his place as the 46th president and the inauguration will be complete (but that's not all - celebrations follow).

Kamala Harris will become vice-president once she takes the oath of office, which usually happens just before the president is sworn in.

When is Biden's inauguration?

By law, inauguration day is 20 January (21 January NZ time). Opening remarks are usually scheduled for around 11.30 EST (5.30am NZ time) and Biden and Harris will be sworn in at midday.

Biden will move into the White House later in the day - his home for the next four years.

What will be the security be?

Presidential inaugurations typically involve detailed security plans, but even more so now, after a mob stormed the Capitol on 6 January.

More than 10,000 National Guard troops will be in the capital, with about 5000 more available if requested. Four years ago for Donald Trump's inauguration about 8000 National Guard troops were deployed.

A Capitol Police officer stands with members of the National Guard behind a crowd control fence surrounding Capitol Hill a day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the US Capitol on January 7, 2021, in Washington, DC.

More National Guard troops are being stationed in Washington. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

When Biden is sworn in, DC will still be under a state of emergency, an order put in place by Mayor Muriel Bowser amid the chaos.

Biden has told reporters he is "not concerned about my safety, security, or the inauguration". But Senator Amy Klobuchar, a member of Mr Biden's inauguration committee, and who was at the Capitol during the incident, said she hoped for major changes to be made.

Will Trump be there?

It's become customary for the outgoing president to watch the next in line be sworn in, which can make things awkward.

This year, it will be a different type of awkward: the outgoing president will be a no-show.

"To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th," Trump tweeted on Friday.

It comes shortly after the president committed to an "orderly" transition of power to a "new administration" - the closest he has come to publicly conceding the race to Biden.

Some of his supporters had already taken it a step further, planning a virtual "second inauguration" for Trump on the same day (and time) that Biden takes office. More than 68,000 people have said on Facebook they will attend the online event to show their support for Trump.

When Trump was sworn in, Hillary Clinton joined her husband, former president Bill Clinton, at the inauguration - just two months after her election defeat and a bitter campaign against Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, at right, with former President George W. Bush at the inauguration ceremony.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, right, with former president George W Bush at the inauguration ceremony for Donald Trump in January 2017. Photo: AFP

Only three presidents - John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson - have actively chosen to sit out their successor's inaugurations, and none in the last century.

Impact of Covid-19

In normal circumstances, Washington DC would see hundreds of thousands of inauguration revellers flock to the city, swarming the National Mall and selling out hotels - an estimated two million came when President Barack Obama was sworn in for his first term in 2009.

The presidential motorcade driving down Pennsylvania Ave towards the US Capitol.

The presidential motorcade driving down Pennsylvania Ave towards the US Capitol in 2017. Photo: AFP

But this year, the celebration's size will be "extremely limited", the Biden team has said, and it has urged Americans to avoid travelling to the capital, a call that has been repeated by DC authorities following the storming of Congress.

Biden and Harris will still take their oaths in front of the US Capitol, overlooking the Mall (a tradition that started with President Ronald Reagan in 1981) but viewing stands that had been constructed along the parade route are being taken down.

In the past, up to 200,000 tickets were up for grabs to attend the official ceremony, but this year, with infections still surging across the US, only around 1000 tickets will be available.

This year, there will still be a "pass in review" ceremony - a traditional part of the peaceful transfer of power, where the new commander in chief inspects the troops, but instead of the usual parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, organisers say they will host a a "virtual parade" across the US.

Biden, Harris and their spouses will then be escorted to the White House by members of the military, including a band and drum corps.

Who is performing?

Biden hasn't yet announced who he will have on stage with him to lend some star power. Expect some big names.

In recent years, incoming presidents have added some of the country's most beloved performers to the day's programme.

In 2009, Aretha Franklin turned out for Barack Obama's inauguration, performing My Country 'Tis of Thee. Beyoncé was also on hand, singing At Last to the first couple at Obama's inaugural ball.

US singer Aretha Franklin performs during the inauguration of President Barack Obama at the Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2009.

Aretha Franklin performing at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. Photo: AFP

At his second inauguration in 2013, President Obama called on Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson to do the honours. Beyoncé was back again, this time to sing the national anthem.

Trump reportedly had more trouble booking performers. Elton John declined Trump's offer to perform, and reports circulated that Celine Dion, Kiss and Garth Brooks did the same. In the end, the Rockettes, country artist Lee Greenwood, and band 3 Doors Down turned out for Trump's day.

Why is the inauguration in January?

A January inauguration wasn't always the case - the Constitution initially set 4 March as the day for new leaders to take their oaths of office.

Selecting a date four months from the November general election made sense at the time given how long it took for votes from across the country to trickle in to the capital. But this also meant the lame duck period - the time when an outgoing president is still in office - was quite long.

Eventually, as modern advances made it easier to count and report votes, this lengthy time frame was changed. The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, decreed the new president would be inaugurated on 20 January instead.


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