Joe Biden spent months of his presidential campaign safely ensconced in his basement, communicating to the country via a television camera. His convention speech was delivered to a near-empty room in Delaware. His remarks after being declared the 46th president were given before a distanced parking lot full of honking cars.
And now, as candidate Biden transitions to President Biden, he is planning an inauguration ceremony that, like his campaign, will look like no other in recent American history.
Discussions are ongoing about requiring everyone to wear masks and stand at a social distance, according to interviews with a half dozen people involved in the planning. Those allowed near Biden for the inauguration ceremony will likely undergo coronavirus testing. The traditional post-swearing-in luncheon, held in Statuary Hall with members of Congress, could be scrapped altogether. There may not be any inaugural balls. Crowds, in all cases, will likely be severely limited.
Biden advisers are almost certain President Donald Trump will not attend Biden’s swearing-in. They find it hard to imagine the traditional tea beforehand at the White House, the typical drive together to the Capitol, or Trump allowing any image of himself looking on as Biden is sworn into office.
Those close to Biden insist that the ceremony must still have the august feeling of past inaugurations — a desire that is all the more important to establish his legitimacy as president, which Trump is continuing to deny. But that quest is complicated by another urgent demand: to adhere to public health guidelines that Biden embraced throughout his run for the presidency and wants to showcase at the start of his administration.
“It’s like everything associated with the Biden campaign: We’ve had to think about how to run our campaign differently, how to run our convention differently,” said Rufus Gifford, the deputy campaign manager who was finance chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee in 2013 and is expected to be involved in Biden’s inauguration planning. “And we’re likely going to have to run our inauguration differently.”
But if the inauguration is important as a magisterial sign of the peaceful transfer of power, it is also the first major opportunity for Biden to set the tone for his presidency. Biden aides also view it as a cathartic release for those who wanted Trump out of office, and, perhaps paradoxically, as a moment to try to unify the country.
“It’s important for any president, but because of President Trump it’s even more so now,” said Steve Kerrigan, a well-connected Democrat who helped run both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations. “The value of being at the Capitol, being sworn in by a Republican chief justice and with Republican members of Congress watching is really, really important, to signal to all Americans that we have a system of government, and a transition of power.”
Joan Hoff, professor of history at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, said there are few parallels to the inauguration that will occur on Jan. 20, with a nation in crisis and a pandemic likely still raging.
“It’s just not going to look like past inaugurals. And I don’t think Biden’s going to cover that up,” she said. “I don’t think he’s going to try to sugar coat what’s happening in the country as he’s inaugurated. That would simply be hiding or trying to sooth public opinion in a false way.”
But one of the most abnormal aspects may be Trump’s lack of participation. He would be the first defeated president not to attend the inauguration of his successor in centuries, Hoff said.
“It’s like everything else with Trump: There’s no way he adheres to or honors tradition or norms, which are not rewritten down as law but which presidents of the past have followed,” she said. “I don’t think he’s temperamentally able to participate in a ceremony that clearly indicates he’s lost the election.”
The White House declined to comment on whether Trump will attend.
As a template for the inauguration, Biden’s advisers have pointed to the Democratic convention, which they reimagined from a usually crowded public event into an almost entirely virtual one. But while the theme of the convention was political in nature, the inaugural would represent a more inclusive effort to speak to not just his supporters but to those who backed Trump.
Even if the swearing-in ceremony is done in person, some of the festivities surrounding it could be primarily virtual. Although firm plans have not been nailed down and advisers are still brainstorming ideas, a pre-inaugural concert on the Mall could turn into an event that is streamed online and highlights Americans from across the country.
Paddy Maloney, one of the founders of the Dublin-based band The Chieftains, recently told the Irish Mail that Biden had invited them to play during some of the festivities — but it was not clear whether the performance would be done in person or virtually.
Even assuming changes, the Biden team also wants to tap into the energy that many in the country expressed after Biden was declared the winner, when dance parties broke out in the streets, and supporters celebrated in Wilmington under a celebratory light show.
They also assume that crowds will come to Washington regardless of what they plan. That could mean discouraging a large gathering on the National Mall, and instead allowing spectators to gather at a distance along a parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.
“There are ways to do it. But the most important thing is keeping it safe and setting the tone for the nation, and not doing anything short of being fully responsible,” Kerrigan said. Otherwise, he added, “It’s like you’re on the 2 yard line 98 yards down the field and then fumbling the ball with some unnecessary event.”
“I’ve been Joe Biden’s friend and supporter since the mid-’90s,” he added. “There’s nothing I want more than a huge convention and a great inauguration that he deserves. But that’s not what he’s in for. He’s in this to show leadership and model behavior for the American public.”
Although construction for a platform has begun on the west side of the Capitol, where inaugurations in recent years have been held, it is possible that the swearing-in could take place elsewhere, according to people involved in the planning.
Of the 55 times the oath of office has been administered, 34 have occurred on the East Portico, the other side of the building, which does not afford space for large gatherings down the National Mall. Oaths also have been staged on the West side (eight times), in the hall of the House of Representatives (six times), and in the Senate chamber (three times). In 1985, after a noontime temperature of 7 degrees made for the coldest inauguration in history, President Ronald Reagan took the oath inside the Capitol Rotunda.
Biden has not yet appointed a Presidential Inaugural Committee, which will help plan the events surrounding the swearing in, but a decision is expected soon. Members of Congress, who control the swearing in at the Capitol, have been meeting for months to plan for the event, without Biden’s input.
Some have started to advertise on their websites to constituents who want to apply for tickets, but most have a caveat posted: “We do not know how many tickets, if any, congressional offices will be given for distribution.”
It is unclear whether past presidents will attend, or see the event as potentially risky to their health. Spokespeople for presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Obama did not respond to requests for comment.
Traditionally the Supreme Court chief justice performs the swearing-in ceremony at the inauguration, but this year that, too, is unclear. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has been cautious about health protocols, with the Supreme Court moving early in the pandemic to holding virtual meetings. He did not attend a public gathering at the White House to swear in new Justice Amy Coney Barrett, but did participate in a private ceremony.
A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment about Roberts’s plans.
Biden months ago was asked whether he could envision wearing a mask while taking the oath of office.
“No. Because I can take the mask off at this distance,” he told a reporter for Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate KDKA, who was standing eight feet away.
When it was pointed out that the Capitol platform is usually packed with people, Biden responded, “Yeah, but you don’t have to have it crowded.”
With the Biden inaugural committee unformed, the event’s financial details remain unclear. Some ethics experts are calling for an end to the traditional way of financing inaugurations, which become a boon for special interests and lobbyists who raise massive sums of money to gain access to the incoming president and his Cabinet.
“This is a great opportunity to call for a virtual party and cut the costs and put a lid on the Presidential Inaugural Committee,” said Richard Painter, who served as the top White House ethics lawyer under Bush. “This idea if you are going to swear in a president you need a big party paid for by a bunch of corporations and special interests — we just don’t need it.”
Despite the realities of the pandemic, Biden advisers are hoping for some sort of celebration, perhaps much scaled back. How to handle such a celebration has been a topic of discussion, and banter, for months.
“We’ll see you at the inaugural party,” Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said to conclude a virtual event conducted by the campaign over the summer. “It’ll be a good party!”
Karine Jean-Pierre, one of the campaign’s top advisers, interjected that there may not actually be a party. “I think we may have to social distance,” she said.
“Social distanced, or together — either way it’ll be a great party,” Inslee responded. “Mask up, wash your hands.”
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The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer contributed to this report.