Joe Biden took the oath of office at noon Wednesday to become the 46th president of the United States. He takes charge in a deeply divided nation, inheriting a confluence of crises arguably greater than any faced by his predecessors. WAMC has been speaking with members of Congress from the Northeast who attended the inauguration. Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, a Democrat from the 1st House district, chairs the Ways and Means Committee.
Well, I was very pleased. I thought that it was comforting to hear a president who offered words of unity and I thought that speech was very reassuring. I think it was a very personal speech and I thought that the dimension, when he spoke about our pursuit of facts and truth and a return to a more civil tone of national debate, all are very welcomed.
Contrast today with what you experienced two weeks ago, on the 6th, on the date when Congress was there to certify the win.
Well I was pleased again today that many of the speakers referenced what happened on January 6th. So I thought that it was no effort to cleverly erase it from the national memory to make it sound as though it did not happen, because it did. At the same time I think that the president, he took great effort to remind people of the fact that in a democracy you can disagree without being violent and destructive. And he spoke to those who voted for him and those who did not vote for him which I thought was also comforting.
Do you think that will work? I mean, there's been so much division in the past several years.
I think that when you look at some of the statistical data about the people who drove this marauding moment, they're really still a tiny part of the American electorate. And even those who disagree would not find solace in attacking the Capitol of the United States. So I still think that there's great room here to put some of these bad memories to the side but not forget them.
Did you feel safe today?
Yes, I did. I felt very safe. Even as we're speaking, I'm looking out the window of my cannon office and I'm looking at literally thousands of National Guardsmen. They're 6 feet apart, they are heavily armed. The FBI, the Secret Service were all part of what I thought to be a pretty appropriate response to what happened. But it also is a reminder that the fencing around the Capitol including barbed wire at the top is ominous.
In another way, this was a very different inauguration because everyone was wearing masks now during the pandemic. As someone who's been to a bunch of these, how is today different for you?
Well I think one of the interesting parts of it is, I'm always interested in hearing a good speech, giving a good speech and I was curious as to how President Biden would respond to not having an audience in front of him, which sometimes is used to instruct the cadence or the delivery of a speech. And again, many speakers derive a certain psychic gratification from the audience in terms of their delivery. But I thought that President Biden today was able to handle that very skillfully. And I thought that once again, he hit all the right notes.
One of your former House colleagues, Vice President Mike Pence, did attend today's ceremony and he was seen off by now Vice President Kamala Harris. Of course, President Trump didn't go and he left early. Did we lose something by not having President Trump attend today?
No, I don't think that we lost anything because that's a decision he had to make. But not to also miss the point that I watched Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush, all presidents that I have known. They were light in their banter. They were enjoying a moment with each other. And when you consider that Bill Clinton had defeated George Bush's father and they still all attended the inaugural. Barack Obama had run against the presidency of George W. Bush in so many ways, and they exchanged pleasantries today. You could see that there was good humor with them. And they are part of this extraordinary institution called Inauguration Day where the victor and the vanquished accept the result.
So later on today, President Joe Biden will be signing a bunch of executive orders as the pomp turns into the business of governance in Washington. What is the top priority from your perspective in the House and how does that align with the Biden agenda, you know, in the early days of this administration?
Well I think that it's a reminder that the pandemic, which as of yesterday had killed 400,000 Americans and infected another 23 million, is at the top of the agenda and I thought the president highlighted that today. So clearly that's first and foremost, because you can't get to full economic recovery until you address successfully the pandemic. So I'm hoping that the next round of COVID relief, that I expect that we will complete in the next month, will be available to the American people. And I'm also very optimistic about an infrastructure initiative. I think he has made clear that he's going to address climate change and he's also going to address the immigration challenges that we have. So all in all, I felt very good about the positive tone of the President's inaugural address. And now we're going to await actions to reinforce it.