On Jan. 20 at 11:49 p.m. EST, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, in a ceremony led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). The festivities included Lady Gaga’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jennifer Lopez’s mashup of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful,” and the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
“I didn’t feel like I’d get crazy emotional from watching the inauguration,” said Ben Mowat, membership director for Drake Democrats. “And then there was Amanda Gorman, who stole the show for me with her just incredible poem. That was the point that I got quite misty.”
Notable attendees included former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, former Vice President Mike Pence, now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Notably not in attendance was former President Donald Trump, who departed from Washington, D.C. for his residence in Florida earlier that morning. He is the first outgoing president of the modern era to refuse to take part in the symbolic transfer of power from one administration to the next.
Rachel Paine Caufield is a professor of political science at Drake University who has attended the last six presidential inaugurations in person. But this year was different.
“Four years ago [on inauguration day], I was standing on the grounds of the capitol with a group of students,” Paine Caufield said. “When you attend the inauguration it’s a very long day, often chilly. Usually, we set out to walk to the [National] Mall around five a.m. You stand around and eat some granola bars for a long time while the sun comes up, so you can get a good spot.”
Paine Caufield continued, “None of that happened for me this year. None of that happened for anybody this year, in that way.”
Between the global pandemic and the lingering threat of violence following the attempted coup at the capitol on Jan. 6, much of Biden’s inauguration was different from inaugurations past. COVID-19 restrictions mean the city of Washington, D.C. is still on lockdown. There were no crowds of people in attendance to watch the ceremonies, and none of the inaugural balls or watch parties that typically happen took place this time. Numerous roadblocks and checkpoints manned by members of the military stood between most of the general public and the steps of the capitol where the inauguration actually took place.
The pandemic and the white supremacist groups that stormed the capitol, among other challenges, featured heavily in Biden’s inaugural address.
“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found the time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now,” Biden said. “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
Biden’s speech contained no specific policy initiatives, instead focusing on Biden’s view of America today and vision for America’s future.
“[Biden’s address] was short! Which I appreciate,” Paine Caufield said. “Inaugural addresses are kind of a strange beast. Because it’s meant to be a moment of recognition, laying out for the country the kind of presidency that they hope to be leading…Biden is a very pragmatic, down-to-earth speaker. He’s not an excellent speaker, he’s not an excellent rhetorician, so his speech was pretty much exactly what I expected it would be.”
Biden’s focus on unifying the country was generally well received by the Drake community.
Matt Deike, executive director for Drake College Republicans, said Biden’s message was appropriate.
“I do like the idea of bringing Americans together, even though the result of the election isn’t what many College Republican members would have liked. We do hope for the best for the Biden administration, and that he can lead this nation to prosperity,” Deike said. “I think what many College Republicans would have liked to see is more specific policy platforms, and more ways that Republicans can work with the Biden administration to provide more relief to the many Americans struggling throughout this Covid pandemic.”
Mowat also said unity was the right message for the moment.
“America voted for unity,” Mowat said. “The Democrats voted for unity, pretty resoundingly. [Biden] won [the nomination] by Super Tuesday…on the message of unity. That’s what he was voted in to do, and that’s him keeping his promise to some extent.”
Kody Craddick, president of Drake Democrats, however, had some reservations.
“The idea of unity is important, but I think we [also] need to atone for everything that has transpired, what has led up to this moment,” Craddick said. “Trump is a symptom of a larger problem, and a lot of that stems from the toxicity in our politics.”
Now that Biden is in office, everyone is waiting to see if he can really make unity a reality, and if his administration can actually accomplish everything it has set out to, given the deep political divisions in the U.S.
Deike was less than impressed with Biden’s job so far.
“As someone that really favors the market, and really favors American jobs, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the Biden administration so far,” Deike said. “You see the Keystone pipeline taken out, [and with it] around 10,000 American union jobs. That’s a huge—that’s huge, coming in as the sitting president, already taking away union jobs. And when you have a Biden administration calling for higher corporate taxes, a $15 minimum wage, that really hurts and damages our American economy and takes away a lot of American jobs.”
Mowat, on the other hand, was excited for what Biden’s administration will do for college students specifically. Between the aforementioned proposal for a $15 minimum wage, and Biden’s stated plans to forgive some federally held student debt, Mowat thought college students potentially have a lot to look forward to.
“It’s an exciting time for college students,” Mowat said. “It doesn’t matter if you are [a Democrat or] a diehard Republican; if you are a college student, there is a 99% chance that you are going to be helped greatly by a Biden administration…college students have potentially the most to gain in the next four years.”
College Republicans and Drake Democrats alike are already looking to future elections, and the steps they need to take on the path toward victory as the political cycle starts all over again.
“Yes, Joe Biden is the president. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to hold the Biden administration accountable, when we see that [it] needs to be held accountable,” Deike said. “We are still going to work with Republican candidates in the area, Republican candidates around the state of Iowa.”
Craddick was of a similar mind on accountability.
“We need to support our Democratic officials in their capacity, but we also need to make sure that we’re applying pressure on them, to make sure that they’re doing their part for Americans to unify to help [alleviate] hardship in any way that it exists,” Craddick said. “We need to make sure our agenda is clear, our agenda is bold, and that we legitimize ourselves as the people who should be running this country for a long time.”