When Joe Biden gives his inaugural address this week, he will do so from a place that will illustrate the magnitude of the challenge he faces as the 46th U.S. president — and will test his ability to find the right words to begin to unite a divided nation.
The very platform Biden will stand on was swarmed only two weeks ago by a mob of insurrectionists seeking to overturn the results of the election, some using American flags as weapons in a place where presidents, going back generations, have held up a peaceful transfer of power as a core American ideal.
"In the eyes of many in the world, this every four years ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle," President Ronald Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address.
And in a fundamental break with 150 years of tradition, Biden will not be able to turn to his predecessor, sitting behind him, to thank him for making the transfer of power possible. President Trump won't be there.
Even in his dark and divisive inaugural address in 2017, remembered for his proclamation that he would stop "this American carnage" faced by "the forgotten men and women of our country," Trump endorsed the tradition.
"Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition," Trump said in his speech.
Trump has not even congratulated Biden, the transition has been rocky, and there is no way to describe this transfer as peaceful. Ongoing security threats — combined with coronavirus risks — will leave the National Mall largely empty, instead of thronged with thousands of people.
It's all combining to give Biden an oratorical challenge unlike any president who came before him.
"There are threads of analogies that you can pull from other speeches, but there is not a boilerplate that Joe Biden can pull from to give him a sense of what to do here," said Jeff Shesol, a historian who was a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton.
Biden also has to respond to the deep rifts in American society exposed by the racial justice protests over the summer and now the riot at the Capitol with all its racist symbols.
Presidential historian Russell Riley said 1968-69 was a somewhat comparable time, when Richard Nixon — who had campaigned on a wave of resentment — took office after the country was riven by riots, antiwar protests and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
"It was a country that was torn apart, and Nixon understood that his chief mission was healing," said Riley, from the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "That's not a word that's usually associated with Nixon because of what happened in subsequent years, but certainly in January of 1969, that was something that was pre-eminent in his mind."