And change is OK, especially during a national crisis. There is nothing sacrosanct about most of the ceremonies on this important day, and inaugurations have looked different throughout history.
Due to the snow and freezing weather in 1985, President Ronald Reagan kicked off his second term by taking the oath of office in the entrance hall of the White House and later delivered his inaugural address before a small crowd in the Capitol Hill Rotunda. Reagan also canceled the inaugural parade, fearing that spectators would get frostbite.
One of the most dramatic moments in inaugural history took place in January 1977. President Jimmy Carter had run a campaign that promised change after the Watergate scandal. Shortly after he was sworn in, Carter told his Secret Service agents to stop the limousine during the ceremonial drive from Capitol Hill to the White House.
The committees in charge of planning Biden’s inauguration should see the Covid-19 restrictions not as a problem, but an opportunity to reinvent the ceremonies. Just this summer, Democrats showed that the political conventions could be remade in a virtual age. While Republicans tried to replicate the standard convention with smaller crowds, Democrats reconsidered the entire event with an eye on the cameras.
The Democrats’ roll-call vote was one particularly powerful segment — a “virtual trip around the world” that featured everyday Americans, including a middle-school teacher in Arizona and a bricklayer in Missouri.
We should see the same innovations during Biden’s inauguration. In recent years, inaugural events have focused more on fundraising and creating a media spectacle. Given Trump’s decision to mount a campaign against the legitimacy of the 2020 election, it is more important than ever before that a ceremony marks the peaceful transition of power and celebrates our democratic values.
But there is no need to try and replicate the standard format. Planners, using the virtual framework, can feature a greater range of voices and create events that allow average Americans to take part and speak to the historical nature and meaning of the moment. They can also include performances from all around the country featuring schoolchildren who have lived through all these months of the pandemic.
The presidential inauguration has changed throughout history. Let’s welcome this moment as a chance to make the event more meaningful than ever. We can celebrate not only the new President, but also the start of a new kind of presidency — one that that is more restrained and focused on the responsibilities of governance than the pursuit of power.