Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. Welcome to inauguration day 2021, but first, a moment of reflection.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me,
Tanzina: On the Eve of the inauguration of Joseph R Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States, Laurie Marie Key, a nurse from Michigan sang Amazing Grace. It was the first national Memorial in honor of the more than 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. Key sang the song near the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial, which was lined with hundreds of lights representing the dead
Tanzina: In cities across the country, Americans, more and friends and family who've been lost to the virus in a moment heavy with empathy from the president elect. Biden acknowledged the extraordinary suffering the pandemic has caused
Joe Biden: Between sundown and dust, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the scared polar reflection and remember all we lost.
Tanzina: Today marks the end of Donald Trump's presidency, an administration plagued by turmoil, two impeachments and a violent insurrection at the Capitol. The incoming Biden Harris administration has a lot on its plate once today's ceremonies are over and they include the COVID 19 pandemic, rising unemployment, and the growing threat of climate change are just a few of the crises the new administration will have to confront. Joining me now to discuss are Maya King, a politics reporter at POLITICO and Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian and professor in the department of Africana studies at Wellesley college. Maya, Kellie, thanks for joining me.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Thank you.
Maya King: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Maya, the pandemic as we have noted has now, we've lost more than 400,000 Americans. It's heightened security threats, inauguration day is going to look very different. What do things look like on the ground in DC today?
Maya: I think most notably is the, of course, absolute dearth of people who are present in the downtown area that's just completely fortified and closed off. We know historically that inaugurations are really times for people from all over the country, to pour into Washington, brings a lot of revenue and tourism to the city. This year that is absolutely not the case. Blocks and blocks of Washington are just absolutely fortified. There's of course, a very heavy military and law enforcement presence for the press and those who are able to actually attend the inauguration.
There are several security checkpoints, really tight rules on what can be brought in, what can be worn and how long even people can stay. This is just a very different inauguration of course. Yesterday, which is usually a day of celebration under normal circumstances for an inauguration, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both had a vigil to acknowledge the now more than 400,000 people who have died of the Coronavirus and had lit up flags on the mall to commemorate this really, really grim milestone that this country has passed. Again, just a very different feeling and a very different atmosphere here in Washington today.
Tanzina: Kellie, that feeling that Maya is describing is, there are some people who are celebrating this moment and there are other people who are not, but the overall feeling is somber. I'm wondering if you can tell us if there have been other inaugurations historically that have had similar tones to them.
Kellie: If we think back, there's only been about four instances in which the former or the outgoing president has not attended the succeeding president's inauguration, Donald Trump will be the fourth president to not attend. I can think of an 1869 with Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S Grant was also another tense, politically tense moment in which Andrew Johnson refused to show up.
I also think of moments where we think of Lincoln's assassination, we think of a time where the country is in need of healing, in need of bringing the country back together again, I think of Kennedy's assassination. I think of these moments that have, intense amounts of violence attached to them where the country really needs to be brought back together again.
Inaugurations are supposed to do that symbolically and substantively. They're supposed to present a peaceful, smooth, clean transition of power. We will not be able to see that today, there'll be more security personnel than there will be regular citizens in attendance. We've never had something like that before. So much about this inauguration is really unprecedented. I hate to use that word because I know it's been overused so much. I also think that there are places where we can celebrate and have points of pride. I'm a Howard university alumni, I couldn't be happier to see someone like Kamala Harris taking the office and being sworn in by a Supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor. These are historic moments as well.
Tanzina: Kellie, not to interrupt there, but that swearing in of Kamala Harris, the first black and South Asian vice-president and woman, and so many firsts for Kamala Harris, but by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Puerto Rican Supreme court justice, is a moment for American women of color. Maya, your thoughts on that?
Maya: Absolutely. I think this is a white house administration that has very clearly demonstrated its commitment to representation in the really high ranks. We know that this is one of the most historically diverse cabinets in American history. That's really something that means a lot, not just for how it looks, but for what it means for policy making. We also know that vice-president elect, soon to be vice president Harris will then go to the Senate and swear in three more history making figures in John Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and Alex Padilla in the Senate.
We know that just this year and in these next few months, I think the next step is looking at how this representation really impacts policymaking. We know that communities of color have been absolutely ravaged by the Coronavirus and the ensuing economic turmoil that it's caused. I think that this is a really, really feel good moment for this country and for its communities. Also very much a time where they're saying, "Okay, how can these people who look like me, also deliver for me?"
Tanzina: Kellie, you mentioned being a Howard grad yourself, Kamala Harris is a Howard grad. She's also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha National Black Sorority, which was the first black sorority in the United States. This is a moment of pride for both of those groups on so many levels.
Kellie: Oh my goodness. If you're on social media right now, my pages are going crazy with, everyone is wearing their shirts, their chucks and pearls, t-shirts and wearing their pearls and, Chuck Taylor tennis shoes and their Howard gear and their AKA gear. It is a sight to see. I am sad in that we couldn't see all of the parades and the pageantry that goes along with the inauguration, because I think we would get to see so much of black women's history on stage for the world to see and black women's pride. That's something that does sadden me a bit, but if you're on social media, trust and believe you will see it all day long.
Tanzina: That's happening all day. Maya, we, speaking of, as one administration comes in, this is the Biden Harris administration that will be inaugurated today. There's another administration that is on the way out. President Trump has left the white house, left the white house very early this morning. Did not do a traditional transfer of power, if you will, to the Biden administration, as we have seen in many president's past. He gave a speech as well. I'm wondering if you had any thoughts on the tone of that speech and how it might compare to the speech that he gave on his own inauguration?
Maya: Well, the tone was certainly a bit more dejected, I would say, compared to his inaugural speech. We know that this is a president, an outgoing president who only a few weeks ago, even acknowledged that he was indeed the losing candidate in this race. The feeling in the white house as my colleagues have reported is just extremely somber from this outgoing administration. There's a lot of regret and even some bad blood, I think, towards this president, particularly as it relates to the January 6th insurrection that he caused.
His speech, of course, didn't acknowledge those things. It just continued to sidestep a lot of the realities of this presidency and of what these last four years have meant for this country. Of course, he mentioned the relationship that he had with Congress, he talked about the role that he's played in not actually causing any more wars, which was a little bit nonsensical. He just, I think, wanted to try to salvage as much as he could his reputation leaving this white house and trying to go out on as high of a note as possible though. As we know, this is against the backdrop of a country that is really trying to heal, not only from the insurrection but the Coronavirus, which was not something that he was really willing to discuss or acknowledge.
Tanzina: Kellie, earlier we discussed the Memorial for COVID-19 victims last night. One of the things that we talked about were the field of flags, where there are thousands of flags on the national mall today, representing people who are unable to attend today's inauguration. State Capitols, Kellie, have also been preparing for today for potential violence. What do we expect to see in other cities? Do we know?
Kellie: My hope is that the day will be uneventful, but we do know that in all 50 States at all 50 Capitols protests are planned by some of the same people that we saw storm the Capitol, not too long ago. I think it's pretty tense. Particularly in certain cities where they expect to get large crowds. I've had friends tell me that they're thinking of keeping their kids home from school today. They're worried about potential violence or things happening. We're not quite sure.
We know that there will be security. We know that there will be some of the law enforcement to keep these protests in check, but I don't think anyone could have anticipated what happened on January 6. I don't know that we can anticipate what will happen today, but we can hope that it will be peaceful and I'll leave it there.
Tanzina: Maya, we've got about a minute left in this part of the conversation. Are your sources concurring with that? Is there any concern in other state capitols?
Maya: Absolutely. I think particularly the security threat at state capitol buildings is one thing that a number of folks are concerned about. I've been talking to folks who have said a lot of similar things to what Kellie is saying that they're just wanting to stay close to home today. That they're a little bit nervous about what could happen. I think it's more just the concern about what's not known, that's really driving people's decision-making today, not just in Washington DC, but across the country.
Tanzina: Kellie, what does this inauguration mean for people of color, for the Black voters, the Latino voters, the Asian voters, the native voters who actively helped to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the office?
Kellie: I think this election means so much. I think president Joe Biden will have a serious mandate on his hand in terms of how he addresses really the harm and the grievances that have happened in communities of color, not just through COVID, but also through racial violence and police violence. I think there's a lot of hope to be seen in this administration, but I also think that we will be holding his feet to the fire.
People of color will be holding president Biden accountable to every single decision he makes. They'll be looking to make sure that every single decision he makes is a counter to the damage and the harm that President Trump has done to communities of color. I think people are expecting for him to address not just COVID and the pandemic, but they're also hoping that he'll address student loan debt and do something to erase the racial wealth gap that's happening all across the country, Black communities, brown communities have been hit extremely hard economically.
I think that when we talk about police reform and mass incarceration, I think these will be issues that have to be addressed. Things that directly impact Black and brown communities will need to be at the forefront of his administration. It can't just be about optics. It can't just be like a black face in a high place. It has to be substantive, and I think that's what a lot of people are looking for.
Tanzina: Maya, when you think about the excitement around the first Black president, President Barack Obama, compared to what we're seeing now, particularly for communities of color, how do you assess the change that we're talking 2008 to 2021 here?
Maya: I think the level of excitement around President Obama's inauguration was just absolutely a feeling of jubilation and this feeling of making history and also just of pride in the work that communities of color, that Black communities did to elect one of their own to the white house. I think that feeling is similar as it relates to now vice president Kamala Harris, though, of course, it's overshadowed by four years of President Trump, that largely felt like a blowback or even in some ways a social referendum on the eight years of President Obama. Of course, the coronavirus, again, as we've mentioned, the economic turmoil, the number of policy decisions that the Trump white house has made to reverse Obama era regulations now.
I think really what this moment represents is an extreme recognition of history being made once again with a Black and South Asian woman in the vice-presidential position, but also just this idea that there's really a very lofty, very high expectation of not just vice vice-president Harris but this white house to deliver for communities of color in a number of the policies that were mentioned, but in making sure that there's some staying power for them. That they can really develop just a platform to be able to come back from this really dark moment for these communities, but also to stay, I think in these positions of power, and be able to affect policy change that would positively impact their communities beyond just four and eight year periods.
Tanzina: Maya, we're expecting legislation very soon from the Biden administration. In fact, they're expected to introduce a piece of immigration legislation, if not later today, then very shortly. What do we know about that piece of legislation?
Maya: Yes, it's just something that's really significant. We know first that because it is legislation, it may take a while for it to actualize, but I think one of the biggest or most important pieces there is that, it creates a pathway to citizenship for more of the immigrants to the United States, which is something that the Trump administration largely steered clear of.
The Biden administration, I guess, we can call it now from the time it was the Biden campaign has really, really stressed this message of on day one being ready to work, and of course, undo a number of the policies that the Trump administration has passed. Immigration is a huge component of that. It's legislation, it's an executive action, which I think we're now up to 15 of those that soon to be president Joe Biden plans to enact in the next couple of hours, but it's just--
Tanzina: Similar to his predecessor, President Trump started his administration with a flurry of executive orders.
Maya: Exactly, and a number of these executive orders that president Biden will be signing into action are really along the same lines of president Trump in that they will be reversing the same first-day executive actions that he made.
Tanzina: Kellie, one of the things that Joe Biden among the many things he has been tasked with in addition to holding progressive to want to hold his feet to the fire, inheriting the COVID-19 pandemic, and other things. The speech that he's set to give today is one where a lot of folks, I think, are expecting him to unify the country. Has there ever been an inaugural speech that's been able to do that?
Kellie: I think that out of all the speeches that presidents give, the inauguration speeches are bar none by far the most memorable. I think the most popular inauguration we think of is Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, or maybe we think of Kennedy's ask not what your country can do for you. I think there have been iconic moments throughout history that one-liners that we remember from speeches.
It's a high bar for him, for sure, but I also think that he's going to have to have language that really does speak of unity, language that speaks of progress and where they intend to go from here. I think what people want to see more than just his words or hear more than just his words is to see him undo some of the damage and the harm that has been done. More than anything else, I think people are looking for structural change and steps into change, and hopefully, his speech will signal to that.
Tanzina: Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson is a historian and professor in the department of Africana studies at Wellesley College. Maya King is a politics reporter at POLITICO. Maya and Kellie, thanks so much.
Maya: Thank you.
Kellie: Thank you.
Speaker 5: What Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's inauguration means to me is a mixture of hope and anxiety.
Tanzina: How are you feeling about today inauguration and what does this historic moment mean to you?
Speaker 5: I hold so much hope that they could begin to write the wrongs perpetrated by the Trump administration and more dauntingly Trump-ism in our nation. My anxiety comes first with the day at the inauguration and my concerns for their safety.
Tanzina: We've been asking you, Takeaway listeners, to tell us your hopes on this Inauguration Day. Many of you told us you're looking forward to a return to relative normalcy in Washington after a tumultuous four years. Some of you said you're thinking ahead to the issues that will continue to challenge this country like the pandemic, inequality, and climate change, even after President Donald Trump leaves office.
Speaker 6: I'm looking forward to this mostly because the last four years have been so horribly absurd and so surreal that any chance of bringing things back to normal, even if the people that are going into office are not perfect, they're going to be a huge improvement. I am just absolutely ecstatic.
Speaker 7: To me, the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the positive side signals a return to a certain level of civility, professionalism, stability, and accountability. However, as a progressive, I'm afraid that it will also signal a return to the status quo of continuing the policies that have led to an ever-increasing wealth gap. I think that the DNC has learned nothing from the 2016 loss of Trump and that we will see more far-right populist leaders in our future as a result. The only true positive change I believe we will see is a stronger commitment to fighting climate change.
Jay: Hi, my name is Jay from San Jose, California. I'm very excited for the Biden and Harris nomination tomorrow because it's a return to reality. I am a former Never Trump Republican, currently unaffiliated politically, but I'm very much attached to leaders who have an attachment to integrity and honesty and getting the facts from verifiable valid sources instead of simply saying the things that they wish or imagine to be true. I hope that more people will recognize this in the days to come especially my former Republican colleagues who many of them still seem to be under the spell.
Anna Key: My name is Anna key from Salt Lake City, Utah. On one hand, I'm extremely excited and heartened and energized by the inauguration, the fact that we have a woman for the Vice President, that we're hopefully reaching the end of the Trump era of just meanness and gridlock everywhere. On the other hand, I am devastated by the fact that I can't express this excitement. I have a lot of conservative friends and family members who see me posting or saying anything to those effects as me starting a fight. I can't be excited about Kamala Harris without being a raging liberal socialist or whatever it is they've decided I am, and that's really discouraging. I'm sad that I'm not allowed to be happy.
Doris: This is Doris from Greenville, South Carolina. The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris means, for me, that maybe I can start sleeping better at night. I feel like I haven't really been able to rest and feel normal for the last four years. I think that there's been an undercurrent of stress for many people in the United States with the administration that's going out. I'm hopeful that the one coming in is going to be able to undo some of the damage that the last four years have done.
Tanzina: Thanks for sharing your thoughts as always, and don't forget, you can keep weighing in by sending us a voice memo to email@example.com.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.