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Historic and unprecedented inaugurations

President-elect Biden’s inauguration will be unlike any other. No other president has taken the oath of office during a global pandemic and the threat of insurrectionist attacks. Most of the ceremonies will be online, strict health protocols will be observed and extreme safety precautions will be employed to prevent violence. The entire National Mall will be closed — something that has never happened before, not even during the height of the Civil War. While all inaugurations are historic, Biden is not the first president to assume office under extraordinary conditions. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office during the direst crisis the nation had faced since the Civil War. On March 4, 1933, unemployment neared 25 percent, millions of Americans were without food and on the brink of losing their homes, and the economy showed few signs of improving. Banks were failing at a fearsome rate and prices had fallen so precipitously that farmers left food in the ground to rot, rather than paying to harvest and send it to market.

Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, refused to offer aid to the suffering and spent the transition trying to get FDR to repudiate the New Deal (upon which FDR had campaigned). On the day of the ceremony, FDR picked up Hoover in a convertible for a very awkward ride to the Capitol. They shared a blanket, which they both draped over their legs, but not much else, as neither had anything to say to the other. Cameras captured the obvious tension and uncomfortable silence between the incoming and outgoing presidents. 

Over 150,000 people gathered around the Capitol to listen to FDR famously declare that the only thing the country had “to fear is fear itself.” He also acknowledged the challenges by so many citizens: “More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment… We must act and act quickly.” 

President Trump’s inauguration was also historic, though for very different reasons. An estimated 300,000 to 600,000 people attended the ceremony, which is fairly average for presidential inaugurations but paled in comparison to the 1.8 million people who attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The inauguration crowds were also dwarfed by the 7 million people worldwide who took to the streets the next day for the Women’s March, including over 470,000 people in Washington, D.C. alone. The D.C. protest was the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history.

This inauguration would be unusual even without the pandemic, as President Trump will skip the ceremonies. The Constitution does not require his attendance, but custom demands it. Only four presidents have missed an inauguration: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson. To be fair to Adams, there wasn’t much of a precedent yet. Washington had attended Adams’s inauguration, but there was no established practice of defeated presidents witnessing their successors take office. Adams could even be forgiven for thinking that his attendance might have created a spectacle.

Additionally, Wilson didn’t attend Warren Harding’s inauguration because he was still recovering from a debilitating stroke. John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson had no such excuses and were just grumpy about losing. Since Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration, every other president, including defeated incumbents, have attended their successors’ inaugurations. Trump is therefore not the first to skip an inauguration, but the only president in a long time to take the coward’s way out.

Faced with a series of unprecedented inaugural conditions, Biden will likely look to follow FDR’s lead. Over the course of his campaign and the transition, Biden has also delivered several speeches promising an immediate response to the economic and medical crises plaguing the nation. These speeches frequently echoed FDR’s calls to action. Much like FDR established a “Brain Trust” to come up with new solutions to the Great Depression, Biden has compiled a team of medical experts to tackle the pandemic from day one in office.  

Biden’s inauguration activities will likely parallel FDR’s evening as well. Rather than attending a series of balls that night, as is customary in the 21st century, the Roosevelts hosted a tea for 2,000 people. The president excused himself early and joined his Cabinet secretaries upstairs, where Justice Benjamin Cardozo administered their oaths of office. Recognizing the dire crisis facing the nation, the Senate had immediately confirmed all of FDR’s Cabinet nominees without debate.

Biden will probably have subdued celebrations and then get to work immediately — as the country expects and desperately needs.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D, is a presidential historian and the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” Follower her on Twitter @lmchervinsky.

Tags 2020 presidential election Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden Presidency of the United States President of the United States presidential inauguration United States presidential inaugurations

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