It follows an historic inauguration day where Biden, 78, became the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington DC that was largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
“Just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground, it did not happen,” Biden said in his inaugural speech at the Capitol.
“It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”
Biden was sworn in shortly after Kamala Harris officially became the first woman, black and Asian-American vice president.
After the inauguration, Biden made it safely to the White House in a barricaded city guarded by more than 25,000 troops and devoid of the hundreds of thousands of spectators usually present at the quadrennial ritual.
Then with the stroke of a pen, the new president began the process of pulling the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement, mandated mask-wearing and social distancing in federal buildings, blocked funding for former President Donald Trump’s border wall, reversed the previous administration’s controversial “Muslim ban” and halted the US’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation.
The new president also scaled back tough immigration measures put in place by his predecessor, changing deportation priorities for enforcement agencies and protecting the “dreamers” program which offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented citizens brought to the US as children.
Wearing a mask and speaking to reporters in the Oval Office for the first time as president, Biden said “there’s no time to start like today” and begun signing the first of 17 executive orders stacked on his desk.
“With the state of the nation today, there’s no time to waste,”
“Some of the executive actions I’m going to be signing today are going to help change the course of the COVID crisis.
“We’re going to combat climate change in a way that we haven’t done so far, and advance racial equity support other underserved communities.
However, Biden also said “there’s a long way to go”, and indicated his administration would “need legislation for a lot of the things we’re going to do”, previewing an upcoming legislative tussle with Congress over a $1.9 trillion (USD) coronavirus-recovery stimulus package.
Morrison, world leaders welcome Biden administration
Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined other world leaders in congratulating the 46th US president and 49th Vice President on their inauguration.
Congratulations to President @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris on your inauguration.
The Australia-US Alliance has never been more important. I wish you both every success for your time in office and look forward to working closely with your new administration.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 20, 2021
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese also offered his congratulations to Biden and hoped the new administration could heal America’s divides.
“America is a divided country and the last four years have been characterised by a president who often made decisions based upon Twitter,” Albanese told ABC radio.
“We have seen a mishandling of the pandemic in the United States and Joe Biden will have a difficult task ahead.”
The Labor leader said after more than four decades in parliament, Biden was perhaps the most experienced president in US history and had a strong team around him.
“The rise of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency – a woman of colour – reflects modern America as does Joe Biden’s cabinet,” he said.
Albanese was confident the president will lead a good government, tackling the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery.
“He is determined as well to restore America’s role in the world rather than the retreat from global leadership that we’ve seen in recent years and that’s a good thing,” he said.
“That’s in Australia’s interests and it’s in the world’s interests to have a strong America.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who butted heads with Trump over trade, said that “Canada and the United States enjoy one of the most unique relationships in the world”.
He said he looked forward to working with the new administration to promote climate action, clean economic growth, inclusion and diversity. Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psak announced today that Trudeau will be the first foreign leader Biden calls, with talks between the two leaders scheduled for Friday.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the inauguration as “the start of a new chapter”.
French President Emmanuel Macron also noted the urgency of addressing climate change after Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord, a move Biden reversed in the first hours of his presidency.
“Welcome back to the Paris Agreement!” Macron tweeted.
“We will be stronger to face the challenges of our time. Stronger to build our future. Stronger to protect our planet.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he looked forward to working with Biden “on our shared priorities”.
“From tackling climate change, building back better from the pandemic and strengthening our transatlantic security,” he said.
Elsewhere in Europe, close US allies finally saw a chance to come in out of the cold after strained security and economic relationships with the Trump administration.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen hailed Biden’s arrival as “resounding proof that, once again after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House”.
“This new dawn in America is the moment we’ve been awaiting for so long,” she said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the swearing-in ceremony as “a true celebration of American democracy”.
“I look forward to a new chapter of German-American friendship and co-operation,” tweeted her spokesman Steffen Seibert, who quoted the chancellor on Twitter.
Pope Francis urged Biden to help foster reconciliation in the US and build up a society “marked by authentic justice and freedom” and looking out especially for the poor.
New Senate sworn in as Democrats hold razor-thin majority
The Democratic Party now holds a slim majority in the US Senate after Vice President Harris swore in three new Democratic members to give the party a narrow grip on both houses of Congress as well as the White House for the first time in a decade.
The new appointees ensured the first of Biden’s cabinet nominees won Senate approval: Avril Haines, tapped for the job of director of national intelligence.
Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California took the oath of office in the Senate chamber hours after Biden and Harris were sworn in.
Warnock and Ossoff won upset victories in a pair of January 5 runoff elections to split the Senate 50-50 with Harris holding the decisive vote in any tie between Republicans and Democrats.
Padilla, California’s first Latino senator, was appointed to fill Harris’s Senate seat after she resigned on Monday to assume the second-highest US office.
Swearing in the new senators, Harris laughed after she read out her own name as the California senator who had resigned, declaring: “Yeah, that was very weird, OK.”
The new arrangement makes Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer the majority leader, with Republican Mitch McConnell demoted to minority leader.
Schumer and McConnell pledged to work together and McConnell pledged to work also with Biden, a former senator McConnell has known for years.
Schumer and McConnell are in talks about a possible power-sharing deal governing daily Senate operations. Both men favour making such an agreement but McConnell has asked to keep the rules requiring a supermajority of 60 votes to advance most legislation.
Schumer said the Senate would address the health and economic crises of the pandemic and strive to make progress on racial justice, adding: “Make no mistake, the Senate will forcefully, consistently and urgently address the greatest threat to this country and to our planet – climate change.”
The Democratic majority in the Senate also means Biden’s former rival, Vermont Senator and self-described democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders, now chairs the influential Senate Budget Committee, giving him significant oversight powers over federal spending.
Sanders, whose casual outfit for the inauguration amused the internet, said the new administration needs to respond “aggressively” to address the US’s problems.
“We’ve got crises, we’ve got to respond and respond aggressively,” Sanders said.
“We should reach out to our Republican colleagues and hear what they have to say, but we’re not going to spend months and months and years and not address the incredible pain that working families and the middle class, small businesses are now experiencing.”
The bottom line is: We’ve got crises.
We should hear what my Republican colleagues have to say, but we are not going to spend months and months and not address the incredible pain millions of families are experiencing. pic.twitter.com/PvEfMEDfHu
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 20, 2021
The Senate is also on track to hold a trial on the impeachment charge brought by the Democratic-led House of Representatives that Trump incited an insurrection in connection with the January 6 deadly storming of the US Capitol by his supporters. Its outcome could determine whether he will be disqualified from running again for president.
Outgoing Trump departs by helicopter after flurry of pardons
Donald Trump departed the White House with his wife, Melania, saying it had been a great honour to serve and giving a final wave as he boarded the Marine One helicopter for Joint Base Andrews, where he delivered farewell remarks.
“So just a goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form,” Trump told supporters before boarding Air Force One for the flight to Florida.
“Have a good life. We will see you soon.”
The plane then taxied and lifted off as Frank Sinatra’s classic song “My Way” played over the loudspeakers.
Air Force One later flew low to give Trump an aerial view of his post-presidential home at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
Trump’s motorcade then slow-rolled past a long line of supporters on his way to Mar-a-Lago. His arrival there was timed to get behind its walls before his term as president expired at noon.
In keeping with tradition associated with the peaceful transfer of power, the outgoing Republican president left a note for his successor in the White House, despite refusing to mention him in his farewell address.
“The president wrote a very generous letter,” Biden told reporters.
“Because it was private, I won’t talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous.”
In his final hours in office, Trump pardoned or commuted the sentence of 144 people, including former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Bannon was facing charges over a crowdfunding campaign titled “We Build the Wall”, which raised more than $25 million from Trump supporters but prosecutors say was in part used to cover Bannon’s personal and legal expenses.
Broidy was involved in a scheme to lobby the Trump administration to drop an investigation into the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and pleaded guilty last year to violating foreign lobbying laws, while Kilpatrick was serving a 28-year prison term on corruption charges related to racketeering and bribery.
Lil Wayne had pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was facing up to ten years in prison, while fellow rapper Kodak Black was sentenced to nearly four years in prison in 2019 after pleading guilty to falsifying information on background forms to buy four guns.
Among those to miss out on a pardon were Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, National Security Administration whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and “Tiger-King” star Joe Exotic.
– With AAP and Reuters
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