Every four years, under normal circumstances, 20 January is a day of celebration in the US, a day when the new president is sworn in with pomp and pageantry, while hundreds of thousands of people, tourists and residents alike, swarm the streets of Washington DC in a joyous mood.
This year will be starkly different, those same streets mostly empty save for a few invitees to the drastically restricted inauguration event – vastly outnumbered by more than 200,000 National Guard troops deployed in the city. “This may be the most unusual inauguration in American history. Maybe not the most consequential, but the most unusual,” president-elect Joe Biden is reported to have said at an event on Friday.
It certainly will be unusual, but not just for the raging pandemic and the still-raw memory of the extraordinary attack on the Capitol that took place on 6 January. It will also be the first time a woman will be sworn in as vice president – a woman of colour, and the daughter of an immigrant at that.
That woman is Kamala Harris, daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, my sister. A very progressive and accomplished woman, not fully appreciated and recognised in her lifetime (at least not by her brother!), Shyamala instilled in Kamala many of the key values that govern her conduct in public life: a sense of fairness, a desire to bring about changes in any societal values that go against human rights, as well as a distinction between law and order and justice.
This is reflected in Kamala's growth from a progressive district attorney in San Francisco, to California’s attorney general, to senator, and now to being the first woman of colour to become vice president of the United States.
Kamala and president-elect Biden will enter the White House to replace a man who has already gained the distinction of being the only president to be impeached twice. The outgoing President Trump, breaking with tradition and convention, will not be attending their swearing-in. Neither will he be hosting the incoming president to a pre-inauguration tea – he plans to leave for Florida in the morning, we understand.
Given the fact he has done more to divide the country than any other president in US history, it is not surprising that the Biden-Harris team has chosen “America United” as their theme for the inauguration, a theme close to Biden’s own heart and reflecting his desire to heal the wounds of the past four years.
As it is, Biden is going to have his hands full in dealing with the immediate issues of controlling the pandemic and reviving the economy. He is not known for being an orator, but his inaugural speech will address all these issues and, in particular, his desire to bring all Americans together.
If he is to achieve that aim, then there are two key constituencies that he has to bring back into the fold of mainstream American politics: one is Black Americans, as well as the other minorities such as Asian-Americans, Latinos and others who have been alienated by the Trump administration and whose mobilisation was the major factor in Biden’s victory this time. And two, the moderate and traditional Republicans who had been seduced by Trump into believing his wild conspiracy theories, ultimately leading to unconstitutional views and acts.
The latter will be looking for public actions that demonstrate the sincerity of Biden’s willingness to bring about unity. Republicans claiming that Trump’s impeachment and criminal cases against the Capitol rioters will not bring unity are like children who murder their parents and then plead for mercy, since they are orphans. The new administration must find an appropriate way to show willingness to forgive mistaken beliefs, without condoning in any manner actions that nearly brought the Republic down.
Biden should have far fewer difficulties appealing to the first group with Kamala playing what is likely to be a greater role in the administration than any previous vice president. She will be a great asset to President Biden in dealing with a range of major domestic issues, from the Black Lives Matter movement and minority relations to police reforms. The incoming vice president has had far greater interactions with the minority and other less privileged communities primarily because of her upbringing.
She is destined to be an active and successful vice president, and hopefully for higher office still – and it is a matter of great family pride.