Joe Biden has been sworn in as president of the United States, pledging to unite a deeply divided nation reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Raising his right hand and placing his left on a Bible, Biden took the oath of office on Wednesday during a scaled-down inauguration due to the coronavirus, which has killed more than 400,000 people in the US.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this – if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” Biden said in his first address as president.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” he said.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of colour to hold the post, was sworn in shortly before Biden.
In an extremely rare move, Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, chose to not attend the ceremony.
Trump left the White House early on Wednesday morning, travelling on the Marine One helicopter to a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, before flying to Florida.
He briefly spoke to reporters, calling his term the “honour of a lifetime” and an “amazing four years”.
“I will always fight for you. I will be watching. I will be listening,” Trump said, adding: “We will be back in some form.”
The inauguration took place amid ongoing security concerns in the US capital in the aftermath of a deadly riot on January 6, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building as Congress met to certify Biden’s election victory.
Trump was impeached last week by the US House of Representatives for “incitement to insurrection” in relation to the Capitol attack.
Thousands of security forces were deployed in Washington, DC for the inauguration, giving a strange feeling to what is normally a celebratory event enjoyed by thousands of people.
Plea for unity
Biden has promised to overturn several Trump administration policies, including rescinding the so-called “Muslim ban” barring entry into the US for citizens from Muslim-majority countries, as well as rejoining the Paris climate accord.
In his first tweet as president, he said: “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.”
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.
— President Biden (@POTUS) January 20, 2021
Biden also pledged to unite the country and urged Trump’s supporters on Wednesday to give him a chance. “To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out,” he said during his address.
“I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, DC, said Biden’s speech “was about delivering a speech to the entire country”.
Fisher said Americans have been hoping for a message of unity, especially after the violence at the Capitol on January 6.
“This was a case of Joe Biden meeting the moment and hoping that he can take the country along a path of unity – and that the country will follow.”
Several world leaders congratulated Biden on Wednesday as he took over the presidency.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Biden taking the helm was a “good day for democracy”, while EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the US was “back”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he looked forward to working together to combat COVID-19 and climate change.
Prior to the inauguration, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he shared Joe Biden’s policy priorities: “[Tackling the] pandemic, economic reactivation and migration.”
Political observers said, however, that Biden faces big challenges ahead.
David Schultz, a politics professor at Hamline University, said bringing the country together amid myriad divisions – including a widening gap between rich and poor, and racial tensions – will require much work.
He told Al Jazeera Trump’s effect on US politics is still being felt. “Trump is maybe the personification, or the symptom of deeper-set problems, that have been coming to a head for a while,” Schultz said.
Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, told Al Jazeera the US remained “a deeply polarised country” and Biden’s first key priority as US president – tackling the COVID-19 pandemic – will be a “huge challenge”.
The US has recorded the most cases and deaths associated with COVID-19 in the world and the incoming head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that coronavirus deaths could surpass half a million next month.
Biden last week unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package and has promised that 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses would be administered in his first 100 days in office.