Because of the pandemic and the U.S. Capitol riots, the Biden-Harris inauguration ceremony "made the Capitol steps feel like a fragile bubble of democracy, secured by a wide perimeter and thousands of troops," says James Poniewozik. "Mr. Biden’s inauguration, then, was even more than usual an event produced for television, our largest virtual space. Like so many public and personal events over the last year, it tried to re-create the emotional experience of being there, to voice the pain of separation and to point to a time when we might be together for real. So it was at the same time defiantly normal — presenting normalcy as a statement and an ideal after four years on a Tilt-a-Whirl — and strikingly unusual. The close-up shots might have come from any inaugural. A fife and drum corps marched in 18th-century finery. Bunting decked a Capitol entrance that most of us last saw being violated by a MAGA mob on live TV. Former presidents reunited. Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez sang in the new administration. But in the long shots, you could see how much had changed. The National Mall was a wind-whipped field of American flags standing in for the usual crowd, a haunting abstract equivalent of the cardboard cutouts at pandemic ballgames. The Reflecting Pool was lined with ghostly lights, which Mr. Biden dedicated the evening before in a cathartic ceremony. Wednesday’s ceremony was a tense scene, however hopeful, in part because of what we’d seen unfold two weeks ago on that exact site. Symbolically, as John Dickerson said on CBS, the setting suggested an effort 'to slowly reset the basic values and structures of American government.' But it was an image of both resilience and fragility, not unlike holding a swearing-in at Ground Zero in September 2001."
Inauguration Day was a colorful beam of light: "The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden may have taken place under the sad, anxiety-provoking shadow of a still-active pandemic and a recent insurrection at the same Capitol that served as the backdrop for the swearing-in of Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris," says Jen Chaney. "But from a visual standpoint, the inaugural ceremony signified a return to joy. In ways both orchestrated and seemingly the result of divine intervention, the official ushering-in of the Biden administration managed to conjure a feeling that had been elusive during the previous four years: hope. You know, that thing Barack Obama invented?" Chaney adds: "Joy was visible in the blended red, white, blue, and rainbow hues of all the American and state flags planted on the National Mall, which were captured in multiple crane shots for those watching on television or on their laptops or phones. There were splashes of magnificent, joyful color in the ensembles worn by many of the high-profile attendees, because on Wednesdays when Biden and Harris are inaugurated, we wear plum and burgundy (if you’re Michelle Obama), periwinkle (if you’re Jill Biden), and rich royal blue (if you’re the first Black, South Asian, and female U.S. vice-president in history). Every one of these women projected off the screen like a beacon, with a pinch of bling for extra shine. The new First Lady’s coat-and-dress combo, by Markarian, had a hint of shimmer. Even with her face largely covered by a mask, Harris’s eyes twinkled and crinkled, betraying the smile underneath. And the appearance of the 44th First Lady and her belt — that belt! — knocked all of Twitter all the way unconscious. There is only one proper way to say this: Michelle Obama looked fly AF."
For such a "boring" person, Joe Biden had an inauguration that was rather lit: "Everyone knows that Joe Biden’s presidential aesthetic is purposefully boring: He’s promising a national nap time after Donald Trump’s violent four-year kegger," says Spencer Kornhaber. 'Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire,' the new president said during his inauguration address today, speaking where insurrectionists had recently carried Molotov cocktails. It was natural to expect that Biden’s induction ceremony would make for a few hours as healthfully bland as a Zoom yoga session. (That is, unless you were one of the QAnon followers giddily awaiting the Space Force to intervene in the proceedings.) Yet the first twist of the Biden era is that the 46th president’s inauguration was rather lit. It felt more like a trippy, tony masquerade than a crisis-era bureaucratic procedure. By the time of the scorching closing prayer by Reverend Silvester Beaman, late-in-a-Marvel-movie sensory overload had set in. Maybe that was because the pandemic added a dose of surreality via mandatory face wear and a flag-peppered National Mall. Maybe the ceremony hinted at a roaring-2020s cultural shift percolating after the grueling, catastrophic 2010s. In any case, the inauguration offered a reminder that the political dream of “normalcy” is a dream not of dullness, but of joy. Skepticism from the right and the left toward Biden’s gauzy rhetoric won’t and shouldn’t go away. But Wednesday was the moment to revel in the mass psychic unburdening that happens when the guy with the nuclear codes doesn’t openly stoke civil war."
Biden's inauguration was like a welcome back party for "words": "Donald Trump was an optics president," says Daniel Fienberg. "He was not a words president. Elevated in the popular imagination by Pizza Hut commercials, Home Alone 2 cameos and the soulless programming generosity of Jeff Zucker, Trump was obsessed with the perception of large hands, with fabricated crowd sizes and with the idea of militaristic parades. Trump valued propaganda with as few accompanying words as possible — or at least as few accompanying scripted words as possible. Give the guy a podium and room to vamp, and he could stir a crowd into a mob. But optics are still the basis for which some conservatives express their refusal to believe Joe Biden won the election...For four years, optics were the same as perception, perception was the same as reality, and reality was a hastily cobbled together assortment of 'alternative facts.'" Biden, on the other hand, offered a different presentation that Trump. "But more than images — and I'm a TV critic, so I try to pay attention to images — President Biden's inauguration was like a welcome back party for 'words,' and his supporters embraced them like one of those heartwarming viral videos of a devoted dog pouncing on a beloved owner returning after time overseas in military service," says Fienberg. "We climbed over ourselves to devour those words like Roberto Benigni running to the stage for an Oscar (or like I'm gonna hit the crab legs line at a Las Vegas buffet if such a thing ever exists again)."
Biden's team offered an event that was more produced, in contrast to Trump's reality TV presidency: "Much has been written about Donald Trump's 'TV presidency,' and how the former reality-TV star sought to produce his time in the White House," says Brian Lowry. "Throughout his presidential campaign, however, Joe Biden's team -- in its adherence to Covid protocols -- has been shaped through the language of television, creating crowd-pleasing TV moments minus the crowds. While Trump continued to emphasize in-person events, speaking to crowds and rallies, Biden used TV to get out his message. Derided by the former president's supporters for running a campaign from his basement, the strategy actually mirrored the way sports has continued with limited or no attendance, or talk-show hosts adapted from boisterous studio audiences to speaking directly to the camera and more intimate remote interviews."
TV succeeded at the task of conveying the enormity of this inauguration: "It was a lot to take in and a lot to present, but the television outlets bringing the spectacle to us managed to convey both the abnormality of the moment and the reassuring feeling of traditions carrying on and normalcy attempting to return," says Steve Johnson. "And they did so mostly in a forward-looking manner, without dwelling on the guy who, four years earlier, stood in that same spot and railed incomprehensibly against 'American carnage,' a phrase that turned out to be closer to prediction than description."
This has to rank among the classiest presidential swearing-ins of all time: "Of course, the incendiary vulgarity of the past four years set the bar so low that anything more than a monster truck exhibition might have seemed artful," says Peter Marks. "But the polished oratory interspersed with performances — Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks delivering rousing versions of patriotic songs and religious hymns — elevated the proceedings, in just the right way. For a president who vows to raise the level of political discourse in the nation, it all came across as tone-perfect. You could sense in the countenances of many of the A-list politicians on the stage at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol — recognizable even in their masks — a relaxed air of fellowship, a sense of order returning, like a lost ship cruising at last back into home port. It was notable that the name of the man vacating the White House was never mentioned by Biden over the course of his 21-minute inaugural address, perhaps the best-paced speech of his long life in politics."
For a brief moment, Fox News and CNN were both praising Biden's message: "On Fox News, home to right-wing stars like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham who relentlessly championed former President Donald J. Trump, anchors and pundits took turns lauding Mr. Biden’s message and the man who delivered it," report John Koblin and Michael M. Grynbaum, adding: "It was an unusual — and perhaps fleeting — moment for a cable news landscape that had been rived by the years of Trump. The cultural divide over a polarizing president and the increasingly fractured notion of what is true and what is a lie seemed to play out daily on 24-hour news networks, where Americans flocked in record numbers for outrage or comfort."