The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th President of the United States this week was a reassuringly uneventful affair, as it should be. But even more reassuring was the series of actions he took on his first day, with a flurry of executive orders, memorandums and directives to agencies, his first steps to address the coronavirus pandemic and undo some of former President Donald Trump’s signature policies. While the number he signed, 15, itself dwarfed that of any modern president, two in particular stand out for their relevance and importance to the international community.
One was to halt the process - begun by the Trump administration - of withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO). The move to re-engage with the WHO was welcomed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who said it was “absolutely critical” for a more co-ordinated global response, his spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said. The other was to begin the process of rejoining the 2015 Paris climate agreement, from which Mr Trump formally withdrew the US last year. Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration. His climate envoy, former US Secretary of State John Kerry, tweeted that the commitment set “a floor, not a ceiling” for America’s climate leadership and urged international co-operation ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow in November.
Other orders evoked the Trump administration’s emergency declaration that helped fund the building of a wall along the Mexican border and also ended a travel ban on some majority-Muslim countries. You certainly can’t blame him for not hitting the ground running. And yet we must also note that signing the executive orders is the easy bit. Ultimately, his presidency will be judged on what sort of legislative muscle he can attach to these orders in the years ahead by working with Congress and other stakeholders.
Delivering a message of unity after the turbulent Trump years, he promised to be a president “for all Americans” - including those who voted against him. Three of his predecessors attended the ceremony: Barack Obama - under whom Mr Biden served for eight years as vice-president - Bill Clinton and George W Bush, as well as Mr Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence.
Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice-president ahead of Mr Biden. She is the first woman - and the first black as well as Asian-American person - to serve in the role. The diversity in his cabinet has been widely lauded, but then again, for a country as diverse as the United States, which has always welcomed the world’s ‘huddled masses,’ isn’t that just normal?