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Scenes From an Inauguration Without Precedent

The 46th U.S. president inherits a public health catastrophe and a deeply damaged economy. But first Joe Biden must face the fallout of a violent upheaval unleashed by his predecessor.

President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20. The Democrat called for political reconciliation amid unprecedented national turmoil following the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20. The Democrat called for political reconciliation amid unprecedented national turmoil following the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Joe Biden has some experience with putting out fires. When he was sworn in as Barack Obama’s vice president on Jan. 20, 2009, America was grappling with a financial crisis so bad its nickname echoed that of the country’s darkest economic chapter.

But the Great Recession and the successful effort by Obama and Biden to extract the U.S. from its clutches—as challenging as that may have been—was just one crisis. Now, as he returns to Washington, Biden faces not one but three national calamities: a public health catastrophe that has claimed 400,000 American lives, a buckling economy marked by crushing unemployment, and most obviously on this Inauguration Day, a nation torn asunder by unbridled hate, bigotry and deadly insurrection.

In 2021 America, words like sedition and coup have moved from history books to the front page. And there are many more hard realities with which Biden must contend. Russia allegedly pulled off a cyber attack on the federal government that’s still beyond reckoning. China, largely recovered from its coronavirus lockdowns, is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2028. As a result of these and other challenges from abroad, Biden can’t afford to leave foreign affairs untended as he combats the pandemic and its attendant downturn while moving to reverse the policies of his predecessor.