No DC trip, no big crowds, but plenty of singing, crying, and making toasts to the new president.
As a self-described “political nerd,” Katie Rosenberg eagerly anticipated all that went with attending Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden when he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
She knows the sense of excitement as hundreds of thousands of people gather outside the US Capitol and spill into the National Mall. The opportunity to hear Biden take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural speech. The music and celebration afterward. The appreciation of the chance to witness history firsthand.
“There is this amazing energy, this realization that you are there with all of these people to witness a part of our democracy,” Rosenberg said, hours before Biden officially began his presidential tenure. “For someone who is into politics, being there in person for an inauguration is amazing.”
Rosenberg would know. The 36-year-old who was elected mayor of Wausau in April attended former President Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony four years ago with her father Jim, another political aficionado. The duo had planned to travel to this year’s inauguration event too, but they cancelled because of concerns related to the coronavirus and security issues in the wake of the Jan. 6 takeover of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
Instead of taking a trip to Washington, DC, Rosenberg traveled to be with her parents at their home in Rhinelander, where they joined tens of millions of people across the country viewing virtually as Biden became the next leader of the nation. Later she planned to attend Zoom sessions with friends to discuss the momentous day.
“Things are definitely different in Washington right now, different in this country,” she said. “But (the inauguration] is still such an important event. It’s a part of our democracy.”
Wednesday’s inaugural ceremony was unlike any other in our nation’s history. Gone were the normal large cheering crowds, replaced by thousands of National Guard members providing security in case of an attempt to disrupt the event.
After the four contentious years under Trump’s leadership during which Americans seemed to grow increasingly divided, many people Wednesday said they welcomed Biden’s words during the ceremony aimed at bridging gaps and unifying the nation as it continues to fight the pandemic and other issues.
Watching from their homes, some people cheered as Biden recited the oath of office, his hand on an old family Bible. Some ate celebratory meals as they took in the ceremony. Some sang along with Garth Brooks’ performance of “Amazing Grace.” Some cried tears of joy for a moment years in the making.
Gloria Hochstein began to tear up when Lady Gaga sang the national anthem and cried more during an emotional reading by poet Amanda Gorman.
“President Biden’s address made my heart ache with his vow to advocate for all Americans, and his challenge to us to help the US to again be a world leader,” said Hochstein, a longtime active member of the Eau Claire County Democratic Party.
Families and friends gathered to view the inauguration ceremony, to celebrate, and to ponder the figure of this nation. Margarete Cook hosted an inauguration waffle brunch at her home in rural New Auburn for a gathering of six friends who quarantined together. The group whooped and hollered joyously as Biden took his oath of office.
“I haven’t felt patriotic for the last four years, and it feels good for that to come back,” Cook said shortly after Biden became president. “This feels like the first step in a staircase that hasn’t been there for a while.”
Jean Accola and her husband Steven “Yata” Peinovich, who live a half hour south of Hayward, used technology to connect with their daughter Ella and her husband and two children in Kenya to view Biden’s swearing-in ceremony simultaneously. They toasted the event with champagne and discussed their hopes for a more peaceful future.
“I feel like I’ve been holding my breath, especially these last two weeks, so it was a sense of relief today,” Accola said, noting she is glad Biden spoke specifically against white supremacy and talked of the need for unity during his address.
Like Rosenberg, Melissa Schroeder had planned to attend Biden’s swearing-in ceremony but called off that plan because of the pandemic and security-related issues. The Merrill resident who once worked for longtime former Democratic US Rep. Dave Obey attended former President Barack Obama’s inaugurations in 2009 and 2013 and looked forward to seeing Obama’s vice president sworn in as president today in person.
However, instead of watching today’s inauguration in person, Schroeder planned to view it during a break from her job volunteering at Merrill High School.
“Of course it is great to experience an event like this in person,” she said. “But you can get that same feeling, that same sense of the special moment, by watching it virtually, too.”
Jim Paine purchased tickets to the inauguration and secured a hotel room just days after the presidential election. But Paine, the mayor of Superior, decided against attending the event because of concerns related to the coronavirus and security. Instead, he watched Biden become president from his office at City Hall, and he planned to share a socially distant beer with friends later in the day at an outdoor beer garden.
He praised Biden’s more aggressive plan to address COVID-19 and said he looks forward to his city working more effectively with federal officials to address local issues.
“The federal government plays an important role in local government,” he said, “and we’ve had an absent federal government in recent years.”
As Mireya Sigala watched Biden’s inauguration, she felt not only hope but a greater sense of belonging. As a Latina whose parents came to this country from Mexico, and as an activist who works on behalf of immigrants, Sigala all too often experiences blatant and less-obvious forms of racism. The fact that Vice President Kamala Harris is not only a woman but a person of color was not lost on Sigala.
“For the first time we’re seeing a vice president in this country who reflects who we are, and that matters to a lot of us,” Sigala said. She called the Biden-Harris ticket a much-needed change from “Trump’s hateful rebuke against people of color.”
Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a history professor at UW-Eau Claire and a Black woman, had a similar reaction to Trump’s departure, especially in light of his actions last year condemning the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As a Black person, I am so glad to see him gone,” she said. “His behavior has encouraged open violence, and it has encouraged ongoing racist behavior.”
Seeking to Bridge Differences
While this year’s inauguration was decidedly different than those of the past, many people across Wisconsin said, the event still carries great importance. In fact, they said, the event is a testament to this nation’s commitment to a peaceful transfer of power despite Trump’s repeated attempts to disavow the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election and numerous unsuccessful court actions seeking to overturn that decision.
“In the end our justice system worked,” Hochstein said. “The court system worked. Despite (Trump’s) repeated challenges to our system of democracy, it worked, and on this day we can celebrate that.”
Larry Wesenberg, a Republican from La Crosse County, said he voted for Trump, and while he didn’t like the outcome of the election, he accepted it. Trump should have done likewise and moved on, he said, noting he planned to watch Biden’s swearing-in ceremony.
“I have concerns about the Biden administration and their policies,” he said. “But we need to accept him as president and start to work together on the issues we need to address in this country. We can still disagree, and we will. But we can’t continue to be so divided about everything.”
While Biden struck a unifying chord in his inaugural address, whether, and how quickly the nation can come together remains to be seen. Many conservatives remain skeptical of the outcome of the election despite no evidence of voter fraud in Wisconsin and other states.
“There is definitely anger out there,” Wesenberg said.
Some Republican politicians, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called out Trump in recent days for his role in inciting the mob that attacked the US Capitol. But others continue to back the man who left the White House Wednesday morning.
Schroeder, who was involved with the state Democratic Party and was Lincoln County Democratic Party chairwoman for 35 years before stepping down recently, acknowledged that significant differences remain between urban America and the rural region in central Wisconsin where she lives.
“It is a very different time right now,” she said. “Are there challenges ahead? Absolutely.”
But Schroeder and others said they hope the conciliatory tone of Biden’s inaugural speech can prove to be a beginning to mending the nation’s social and political fabric.
“If all of us can put the good of the country first, I believe it can happen,” she said of bridging divisions. “We need to look at ourselves and realize the last four years is not what America is all about.”