At midmorning Wednesday, Joe Biden climbed the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pausing at the top to gaze out onto the stone plaza. It was within this complex that he found out that his first wife and daughter had died in a car accident in 1972. This was the ground he traversed for so many years as he rushed to catch an Amtrak train home, the building where he oversaw hearings, filed legislation and cajoled colleagues.
It was space that he entered as president-elect and, more than three hours later, left as president of the United States, walking past a glass window still shattered from the mob assault two weeks earlier.
The man who has had a number of titles — senator and vice president, Joey and “Pop” — finally got a new title, one that he had long sought but had eluded him for most of his long life: “Mr. President.”
He’d written a paper about becoming president in grade school. On spring break in the Bahamas, shortly after meeting the woman who would become his wife, he told her that he would one day be president. And over the past two years, while campaigning to become the 46th president, he would repeat exercises 46 times during his morning workout (“I wish I’d been the 20th president,” he said last year. “It would have been a lot easier.”)
The son of a car salesman and a homemaker became the first president named Joseph, the first from Delaware and, at age 78, the oldest president in history. And the man who is perpetually late was sworn into office 11 minutes before the appointed time of noon, when he officially became president.
“My whole soul is in this,” Biden, squinting into the sun, said during a 20-minute inaugural address he had been working on for months.
A candidate who often drew inspiration from the challenges facing Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression became a president who cited the hurdles Abraham Lincoln confronted during the Civil War.
“We must end this uncivil war,” Biden said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
He was sworn in using a five-inch-thick Bible with a Celtic cross on the cover that has been in his family since 1893. It was the same Bible he used in 1973, when he was first sworn in as senator in a hospital chapel where his two sons were recovering from the car accident that killed his wife and daughter. It was the same Bible he used for five more U.S. Senate terms and two terms as vice president.
It was also the same Bible that his late son Beau used when he became Delaware’s attorney general. On each occasion, a new date is inscribed in the Bible, with Jan. 20, 2021, now the latest to be added.
Biden exchanged a fist bump with former president Barack Obama, the man who elevated him to the vice presidency, on his way into the inauguration and gave him a hug on the way out.
It was a day that was lived mostly in public, shaped by choreographed events. Biden walked around the Capitol Rotunda, receiving gifts from members of Congress. He signed his first official documents, including papers that formally sent his Cabinet nominees to the Senate for confirmation.
[Biden’s Cabinet picks]
He had a brief minute to check his phone after getting into a Cadillac limousine — with a special license plate for the day, bearing the number 46 — as he left the Capitol and headed to Arlington National Cemetery.
In Biden’s first visit to Arlington as president, he joined three former chief executives — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama — to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Biden saluted as an Army band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, later, a bugler played taps before a moment of silence.
It was a day that shifted dizzyingly between emotional moments. At times, Biden sat in silence. At others, he spoke at length. There was solemnity and an occasional burst of excitement. It was a day filled with old rituals and modified ones.
A day when Biden could not plunge into the crowd as he loves to do — a crowd that was severely curtailed in any case because of a raging pandemic.
But as the new president’s motorcade arrived near the White House, Biden and his family got out and walked the final stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. He saluted, waved, and then sprinted over to those watching, first to give a fist bump to Al Roker of NBC News and then, before greeting D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, to NBC News’s Mike Memoli, who asked what the moment felt like after a career in search of the White House.
“Feels like I’m going home,” Biden said.
At a particularly low point in his campaign last year, Biden said in Iowa: “Could I die happily not having heard ‘Hail to the Chief’ play for me? Yeah. I could.”
And then, on Wednesday, he stood in front of the White House with first lady Jill Biden, listening to “Hail to the Chief” being played for him.
Biden spent some time in an Oval Office redesigned for his arrival, featuring a large portrait of Roosevelt instead of Andrew Jackson, and reading a letter former president Donald Trump left for him that Biden called “very generous.” His chief of staff, Ron Klain, wore a red and blue mask that read “UNITY!”
Biden issued 17 directives, immediately breaking with Trump on a range of policies. He moved to reenter the United States in the Paris climate accords, require masks on all federal property, and repeal the ban on entry into the United States for citizens of some majority-Muslim countries. The new president also filed a sweeping immigration bill.
By the evening, Biden addressed nearly 1,000 new administration officials, swearing them in virtually and warning he would fire anyone who did not treat others with respect.
Biden also formally took control of the @POTUS Twitter handle, using it to send messages that were notable mostly for being unremarkable compared with his predecessor’s use of the platform. There were no sentences in all caps, no exclamation points.
His first presidential tweet simply read, “There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face. That’s why today, I am heading to the
Oval Office to get right to work delivering bold action and immediate relief for American families.”
The second was a minute-long video focused on optimism and unity.
Biden’s day, tightly choreographed as it was, capped off the most tumultuous transition in recent history, as Trump aggressively challenged Biden’s victory and encouraged a mob that attacked the Capitol, prompting an 11th-hour impeachment.
That unfolded just days before Biden arrived in Washington on Tuesday night, staying at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse that sits across from the White House.
On Wednesday morning, at almost the precise moment Trump waved goodbye and boarded Air Force One en route to Florida, Biden emerged from Blair House, waving hello en route to church.
A devout man who has become the nation’s second Catholic president, Biden traveled in a 32-car convoy to go five blocks — past National Guard troops and storefronts boarded with plywood in case of violence — to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. It is the same church where the first Catholic president and Biden’s political idol, John F. Kennedy, had his funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963.
“Before all the activity of this wonderful day, we quiet ourselves and ground ourselves in the faithful love of God and the love that we have for one another,” the priest said as Biden stood in the front row, head bowed.
Seated several rows away were Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), both there at Biden’s invitation.
But for Biden, who prides himself on keeping in touch with average Americans — despite his longevity in Washington, he never lived in the city until becoming vice president — there were new challenges and added formalities.
As Biden visited the Capitol, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) presented him with a photo of the inauguration. Biden indicated that Hoyer, a longtime ally, could just call him Joe.
“No, Joe,” Hoyer told him. “You’re Mr. President.”
The new president did not protest.