Relief and disbelief as Joe Biden takes oath as president, sets new tone
Jenna Johnson, Claire Gibson, Kathleen McLaughlin and Andrea Eger
Washington - The moment Joe Biden raised his right hand to be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States was one that many Americans had long struggled to imagine.
For four years, Democrats fretted that voters would side with Donald Trump, or that he'd find a way to stay in the White House. Many Republicans couldn't believe that Trump would lose.
So when the inauguration actually happened on Wednesday, some Biden supporters said they found themselves overcome by emotion and a wave of relief. But for many, it was coupled with anxiety that the United States is too broken, too divided for one president to repair.
Alice Boyer, a 24-year-old Democratic organiser and legislative staffer in Montana whose Blackfeet name is Tsi'koi'yiiktaan, felt a rush of optimism. With Biden, she said, there would soon be a coordinated federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But she also worried that Americans seemed too eager to move on, rather than address the issues that allowed Trump to take office in the first place.
"It feels like a weight has kind of lifted," said Boyer, who became especially emotional as Kamala Harris became vice president, shattering race and gender barriers. "One speech won't fix things, but it does open doors."
Meanwhile, Connie McGill - a 64-year-old Trump supporter and retired author of pet cookbooks - listened to Biden's remarks and discussed them with her friends over text message. While she appreciated his calls for unity, they did little to alleviate her fear that this moment marked the start of the country's descent into communism.
"I feel like it's a fraud, and I feel like we've been pushed into this ... but I want to hear him out," said McGill, a grandmother of 12 who lives in Tulsa, Okla. "I would love it if my opinion would change. But it's not going to change over words; it's going to change over actions."
Wednesday's inauguration was unlike any before, coming at one of the most tumultuous moments in US history. Biden was surrounded by just a few guests and looked out at an audience of American flags guarded by armed troops. Americans tuned in largely from the isolation of their homes, away from the threat of the pandemic or violence.
Those tensions weighed heavily on many of those who watched.
"This is probably the most important presidency in my lifetime," said Joe Johnson, 58, an Air Force veteran and gym owner in Nashville, Tennessee, who considers himself a fiscally conservative but otherwise moderate Democrat. "I am breathing a major sigh of relief. It feels like we've been in a fox hole, under siege, running out of supplies, and in the 11th hour, reinforcements have shown up. That's the way I feel. I feel like the cavalry came."
Johnson watched the day's events out of the corner of his eye as he led a boot-camp-style exercise class via Zoom.
He wasn't the only one. When Harris was sworn in, two of his clients - both Asian American women - burst into cheers and applause. He smiled along with them, then jokingly told them to get back to work.
As he later listened to Biden's words, he was struck by how starkly different they were from what he had been hearing from Trump.
Trump never seemed to care about the 400 000 killed by covid-19 under his leadership, said Johnson, whose cousin died alone in New York. But Biden made the nation's loss a focus of his inauguration.
Trump had refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, Johnson said, but Biden did just that.
"As a Black person, you're often accused of pulling the race card. It's easy to feel crazy, like the inequities you feel or experience are just in your head," said Johnson, who has four children and five grandchildren. "Finally, the president of the United States is up there admitting that there is systemic racism in this country. That is huge."
But will it change anything?
That's what Eboni Price, 29, wondered as she sat on a friend's front porch in rural Texas and watched the inauguration on her laptop.
After voting for Obama in 2012, she sat out the 2016 election and then wrote in Kanye West for president in November because "he's a happy medium." She is relieved that Trump no longer has access to nuclear weapons, but she worries that the violence seen at the US Capitol will only continue and worsen in the weeks ahead because Trump's supporters are numerous and unlikely to change their outlook.
"Their mind is pretty much made up," said Price, who lives in Houston and is studying to be a veterinarian. "They hate Biden just as much as they love Trump."
That's definitely the case for Willy Guardiola, a dedicated Trump supporter in South Florida who regularly organises small rallies of support for Trump and refuses to recognise that Biden is the president.
As Biden was sworn in, Guardiola and hundreds of fellow Trump supporters were standing along Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Fla., having just welcomed the outgoing president home. Instead of racing past as it typically does, the motorcade moved at a glacial speed so Trump could wave to onlookers.
"You could just see the smile on his face, waving at us," said Guardiola, 63, a Cuban American retired NCAA basketball referee who lives in Palm Beach Gardens with his three cats. "Emotional, man. It was a very, very powerful day."
For months, Guardiola waited for God to intervene so that Trump could serve a second term. He thought it would happen before the election, perhaps with the indictment of several federal employees whom he considers part of "the deep state." He then thought it would happen soon after Biden was declared the winner of the election, perhaps with a dump of evidence that proved Democrats had rigged the election. He thought for sure it would happen before the electoral college voted, before Congress certified those votes and long before Biden raised his right hand.
He grew frustrated as time passed, and he turned to his pastor for guidance. He told himself over and over again: "God's got this," or "G.G.T."
Guardiola put off making plans for Wednesday - which he called the "Bogus Inauguration That May Never Take Place" - but when Trump announced that he would travel to Mar-a-Lago, Guardiola made plans to greet him once again. He held out hope that "divine intervention takes place this Wednesday ... and Sleepy Joe never puts his left hand on our ever-sacred Holy Bible."
"God didn't answer my prayers this time around," Guardiola said soon after Biden was inaugurated.
Guardiola refused to watch the ceremony and said he plans to keep his television off for the next few days so he doesn't accidentally hear Biden's speech to the nation.
"That's not my president," he said. "I just going to ignore everything. I am not going to watch the news for quite some time. I am hoping that something happens today, but obviously it hasn't happened yet."
Guardiola's worries about a Biden presidency are vague but severe, and involve the country ceasing to exist as it has as socialism or communism takes over, even though Biden has made clear that that is not his plan.
Some Biden supporters were equally vague in their hopes for the next four years, just wanting anything but Trump. But there are concrete promises that Biden has made - or suggested - that could quickly change the lives of many, including undocumented immigrants, the unemployed, those without health insurance, those who can't afford college and anyone who wants the pandemic finally to end.
Art Tanderup, a 68-year-old retired teacher and moderate Democrat who lives on a farm in rural Nebraska, has spent the past decade fighting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through his farmland and close to his family's water well. President Barack Obama rejected the project in 2015, but Trump revived and advanced it through executive orders and permit approvals.
On Wednesday, Biden signed an executive order to rescind the presidential permit Trump granted the Keystone XL pipeline.
"Today will be the culmination of all that effort," said Tanderup, who plans to continue to advocate for environmental issues. "Today is a wonderful day, but it's kind of a tough day because we didn't know when this day would come."
As Jennifer Lopez sang her version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," a protest song embraced by landowners and Native American activists who fought the pipeline, Tanderup became emotional. Tears came to his eyes as Biden spoke.
"It was just such a contrast to what we've had the last four years," he said. "I was just so overjoyed we have a president again. We have a president who cares about this country more than he cares about himself."
Biden's remarks Wednesday struck a somber tone. But Wednesday was still a celebration for those happy to see Trump gone - and to see a woman of color become the vice president.
Natasha Witherspoon, a 49-year-old marketing consultant in Charlotte, put on a string of pearls and a pair of pink Chuck Taylors in honour of Harris, a fellow member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and opened a bottle of pink champagne.
Her cellphone pinged again and again with texts from sorority sisters and friends. "I'm taking pics like I'm there," one wrote. Another added: "Tears. . ..so proud. So happy."
A lifelong Democrat, Witherspoon often felt dismay and disbelief during the past four years.
"Never in my life did I imagine the things that we've witnessed take place in the Trump administration," she said. She said that as a Black woman, she's not naive about racism, "but I never thought I'd see white supremacy on full display. You hear people say this isn't America. Yes it is."
But she'd grown more hopeful since the day the election was called for Biden, when she telephoned her parents and screamed into the phone: "We did it!" She seized the opportunity on Wednesday to celebrate this moment she worried would never come.
"I feel blessed to be in this moment," she said, savouring it.
*Johnson reported from Washington, Gibson from Nashville, McLaughlin from Butte, Mont., and Andrea Eger from Tulsa. Ted Genoways in Lincoln, Neb., Pam Kelley in Charlotte and Brittney Martin in Houston contributed to this report.