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Michigan VIPs hail Biden's inauguration as first moment of reconciliation

Washington — Michigan dignitaries who witnessed the transfer of power Wednesday at President Joe Biden's inauguration hailed it as a first moment of reconciliation for a deeply divided nation.

Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, taking the helm of a nation riven by a disputed election, civil unrest and a politicized pandemic. 

"Hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans," the Delaware Democrat said. "And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and former Govs. Jim Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm, all Democrats, were part of the crowd gathered for the ceremony, which had limited attendance due to social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Several members of Michigan's congressional delegation also attended. 

"It felt like we are turning the page as a country," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who sat on the platform where Biden took the oath.

"It was a moment where people collectively had a sigh of relief and hopefulness. And even with all of this going on, there wasn’t a sense of fear or nervousness. There just wasn’t. It was a very hopeful, uplifting, inspiring day."

Blanchard said the ceremony was both "very upbeat" and "very unusual" because of the rigorous coronavirus precautions. Reaching the unity that Biden called for will take time, he said, but he's prepared to help make it happen. 

"He's really the man for the moment," said Blanchard, a longtime Biden friend who advised his campaign. "We need someone with enormous experience and drive who doesn't give up. I think he's right man for the right time."

Republican U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland said Biden's emphasis on bringing people together was appropriate. The new president's challenge, he said, will be governing with the spirit that he evoked Wednesday.

"It really reflected President Biden and his priorities in terms of wanting to focus on the faith and the history — almost an air of President Kennedy with an aspirational speech," Moolenaar said.

"The challenge is he's used to governing with priorities more in line with a centrist Democratic Party, whereas much of the energy of the Democratic Party is now in the more liberal, extreme wing. If he has to cater to that, that will create problems."

'So much ... to clean up'

Vice President Kamala Harris made history on several levels Wednesday as she became the first Black woman and the first South Asian woman in the White House.

In a normal year, politicos would have gone from the Capitol to any number of evening galas, such as the Black Ball, where Harris' glass-ceiling-shattering moment would have been celebrated. Instead, African-American leaders convened by Zoom Tuesday night, said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat.

"While my spirits are excited, I am a little disappointed that we are not dancing and celebrating ... but we have so much work to do," said Lawrence, who is vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

"I was sitting there thinking about how great it was that we now have a president that has compassion. We have a president that is inclusive. This president wants to do the hard stuff. There is so much coming at him that he has to clean up."

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill, walk out for the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

The scope of inaugural festivities was dramatically scaled back compared with those of recent history. Planners tried to keep Wednesday's crowd socially distanced to address serious threats to public health, with chairs spaced 6 feet apart and VIPs spread out on the Capitol lawn, rather than packed onto the main platform. 

Rep. Dan Kildee, right, and his guest, Flint physician Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, take their seats Wednesday on the west front of the Capitol ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration. Kildee is wearing a mask with the United Steelworkers logo.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, attending the ceremony with Flint physician Bobby Mukkamala, said it felt "more solemn" than at previous inaugurations due to the chaos that wracked the Capitol two weeks ago when rioters breached the building in an effort to disrupt the official confirmation of Biden's victory. 

This inauguration "represents the resilience of our democracy," Kildee said. "It’s one thing to have a democracy that works when everything goes right. It's something else to see it work when the president, and at least in the House the majority of one party, tries to undermine democracy. And, still, here we are.​​​"

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, said he went for a run around the city Wednesday morning and reflected on what he said was the beginning of a new era in which the nation can fight systemic racism, restore the environment and lift up workers.

"I'm very excited about this day," he said. "There are many Republicans and Democrats in the crowd, and we're all here celebrating the peaceful transfer of power. So even if some people in society tried to thwart that — and that's a big problem — here we are, we're doing it anyway."

Attendees at the ceremony had to test negative for COVID-19 and answer health screening questions. Security was tight, with National Guard troops and other federal law enforcement lining the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, and scattered among the audience and VIP platform.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, and her fiancee Rob are attending the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2021.

Members of the public were urged not to attend, and officials closed off the National Mall and most downtown streets to discourage people from trying to get close.

"As a representative for Michigan's 11th District, I always say to people, 'I'm here for us all.' And today is absolutely one of those days," said Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills, who stopped to talk on her way to her seat with fiancé Rob Gully.

She gestured to the 100,000 flags staked in neat rows down the mall, representing all those who couldn't attend in person. "This is why we are here," Stevens said. 

While the setup was different due to COVID, Stabenow said, performers like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga added a bit of glamour to the day. Stabenow and her 11-year-old grandson, Walter, wore aviator sunglasses — Biden's favorite accessory. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and her 11-year-old grandson Walter wore aviator sunglasses to inauguration in a nod to President Joe Biden’s favorite accessory.

'We've got to go on'

Trump did not attend Wednesday's ceremony, the first president since Andrew Johnson to skip the inauguration of his successor. He departed around 9 a.m. on a flight to his resort Mar-a-Lago in Florida before the festivities got underway. Vice President Mike Pence attended the inauguration instead. 

Several Michigan House members also missed the ceremony, citing logistical or security concerns: Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Bill Huizenga, R-Holland; Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township; and Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township.

Republicans joined Biden's calls for unity as they begin at least two years as the minority party — although with narrow margins — in both the Senate and House. 

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, was one of three Michigan Republicans who voted two weeks ago not to certify Electoral College votes in two states.

He attended Wednesday's ceremony, noting it's time to "accept the results," though he will "be a member of the loyal opposition, of course."

"This is America. This is what we do every four years to show the world that we have a free election — whether we like the outcome or not,” said Walberg, bundled up against the wind in a trench coat.

"Sadly, we have this experience with all of these troops. Nothing like this has happened since the Civil War. But we've got to go on.

"I hope today is a starting point of ratcheting ground down the anger, the passion that's out there, but also listening to the people saying how can we do it differently in four years."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said at Wednesday's inauguration that he accepts the election results and will be the "loyal opposition" to President Joe Biden.

Upton, Michigan's most senior delegation member, said Biden's address signified he's ready to work with both sides of the aisle to achieve his legislative goals. 

"That's always been his M.O. Always. He's got friends on both sides. He has a challenge, and we all want him to succeed and our country to succeed," Upton said by phone as he traveled back to Washington. 

"Nothing is worse than what we've experienced to this COVID. A 'return to normalcy' is where we want to go. Precisely the right message. I’m anxious to get to work."

Granholm, whom Biden has tapped to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, said the day represents "a new page for America that is a unified page."

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for energy secretary. She is attending the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.

Granholm said her "focus on jobs in America in clean energy" and experience in Michigan weathering the Great Recession and moving the auto industry toward an electric future were crucial in Biden's decision to select her for energy secretary.

"It’s a huge moment for us as a nation to move forward in this new sector where there will be millions of jobs created," Granholm said. "And that’s what Joe Biden is all about: jobs, jobs, jobs.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

rbeggin@detroitnews.com