According to the U.S. Constitution as modified by the 20th Amendment, a president's term begins at noon Jan. 20 following an election. The new or re-elected president must take the 35-word oath of office before exercising any powers or duties. These are the only requirements. All else is ceremony.
In the context of what effectively has been the first challenge to the peaceful transition of power in the nation's 244 years, it is imperative that the requirements be met without a moment's delay. The decision should be made now to move Wednesday's swearing-in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris inside the U.S. Capitol. It won't count any less.
The inaugural milieu already has been diminished significantly because of the coronavirus pandemic: no parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, no inaugural balls, few in attendance. But since the ransacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6 by a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters, further restrictions have been layered on seemingly by the hour. There'll be more than 20,000 members of the National Guard on hand, many of them armed, enforcing "the largest perimeter ever established around the Capitol." The National Mall, where crowds in the past have served as a barometer of popularity, will be entirely closed. A rehearsal planned for Sunday was postponed because of security concerns. People have been urged to stay away, not just from Washington but from state capitols like Minnesota's because of threats leading up to the inauguration.
President-elect Joe Biden has been adamant, however, about being sworn in and giving his inaugural address at the long-traditional location outdoors on the west front of the Capitol.
Indeed, there's a case for being resolute in the face of extremism. Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, who is the Senate's Democratic lead on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, told a member of the Star Tribune Editorial Board that "unless there is a real threat, we're not backing down. We think they should not scare us into changing the inauguration."
But the inauguration already has been irreparably changed.
The mob that overran the Capitol easily breached a loose defense. In theory, there should never be such softness on an Inauguration Day, which even in normal times is considered a National Special Security Event that taps a range of federal agencies and law enforcement officials.
Still, information that has emerged since Jan. 6 has indicated that the Capitol mob was not made up merely of slap-happy yokels striking poses and crapping on floors but, in startling measure, of organized insurrectionists with deadly capability and intent.
It is this that worries people like retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who wrote on Twitter that moving the oath inside would not be a signal of weakness. McCaffrey also said during an MSNBC interview that although he doesn't believe Biden risks physical harm, provocations on the edges of the perimeter could create a "humiliating" diversion before a global audience.
The most important visual, both for Americans and the world, is the transfer of power — wherever it takes place. And just as it mattered that Jackie Kennedy was standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath on an airplane following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, it is necessary that representatives and supporters of the Trump administration be present on Wednesday. Trump himself won't be. But outgoing Vice President Mike Pence must be, as promised, as must members of the soon-to-be opposition party in Congress.
This won't be the first inauguration to be altered by external events. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt took his fourth oath of office (when that was still possible) in a quick ceremony at the White House. And in 1861 during a time of gathering war, Abraham Lincoln changed his travel and public appearance plans and arrived in Washington unceremoniously after learning of an assassination plot. Though he later said he regretted the subterfuge, the essential point is that he arrived safely and began to govern.
We hesitated to repeat the Lincoln story because of its obvious epilogue: And the war came. But that needn't be the fate of our nation now, not if Americans in all corners understand — as we believe most do — that they're involved in an ongoing experiment of self-government for people of disparate interests. There will always be adjustments to be made — and upcoming elections and political processes in which to pursue them. But it's hard work.
The founders were accustomed to violent dispute and sought a better way: Grievances welcomed. Engaged on their merits.
For citizens wishing to be heard, we would add: Presentation matters.