The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In his first inaugural event, Joe Biden presides over somber memorial for the 400,000 Americans who have died of covid

President-elect Joe Biden attended a vigil for coronavirus victims the evening before his inauguration on Jan. 19. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President-elect Joe Biden opened his inaugural commemorations Tuesday evening by honoring the 400,000 Americans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic, marking the final hours before his swearing-in with a somber reminder of the struggles facing the nation he will lead Wednesday.

Biden, returning to Washington for the first time since winning the election, presided over the first national mourning event amid the pandemic, and it set the tone for an inauguration that will be marked with more solemnity than jubilation.

Photos: Scenes during covid memorial ceremonies around the nation

Lanterns surrounding the Reflecting Pool next to the Lincoln Memorial shone to represent the dead, and buildings across the nation lit in a united effort to honor those lost. As the sun set with vibrant tangerine hues over a largely desolate, security-conscious downtown, Biden explicitly called on Americans to remember the victims and implicitly signaled the swift changes he would try to bring to the presidency.

Speaking at the National Guard headquarters named for his late son, President-elect Joe Biden bid farewell to Delaware on Jan. 19, before departing for D.C. (Video: The Washington Post)

Four years after President Trump entered office talking about "American carnage" and insisting that "I alone can fix it," Biden sought to project an optimism rooted in the possibilities of a country united and working together.

"Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness," Biden said in brief remarks that left the images to speak louder than his words. "To heal, we must remember. It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation. That's why we're here today."

Earlier, a Michigan nurse, Lori Marie Key, sang "Amazing Grace," and after Biden spoke, gospel singer Yolanda Adams sang "Hallelujah."

As she did, Biden; his wife, Jill; Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris; and her husband, Doug Emhoff, turned to gaze across the darkened pool. In a space that is usually crowded with people for a pre-inaugural concert, the dominant image instead was one of a void framed by light.

The ceremony was meant as a demarcation between Biden's presidency and the tenure of Trump, who has mostly ignored the swiftly rising coronavirus caseloads and death toll for months, after insisting during the campaign that the virus would soon disappear.

Biden and Harris have cited tackling the virus — by persuading more Americans to use preventive measures and by vaccinating millions vulnerable to it — and the parallel economic collapse as their top priorities when their administration takes power Wednesday.

Inauguration planners also organized other iconic buildings — including the Empire State Building in New York and the Space Needle in Seattle — to light up Tuesday night, and invited cities and towns around the country to join in the national moment of tribute.

"For many months, we have grieved by ourselves," Harris said on Tuesday night. "Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together."

Biden's appearance at the Reflecting Pool came hours after he offered an emotional farewell to his home state, weeping openly several times as he spoke in front of a bank of Delaware flags before boarding a flight to Washington for his swearing-in as president at noon Wednesday.

"I know these are dark times. But there's always light," Biden said from the Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center at New Castle Airport, a venue named after his son, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

“You’ve been there for us in the good and the bad and never walked away,” Biden said, after calling out to several friends in the audience. “And I am proud, proud, proud, proud to be a son of Delaware.”

As Biden spoke, tears rolled down his face, and he fought for control several times.

Paraphrasing an adage from Irish writer James Joyce, Biden said: “Excuse the emotion. But when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”

Biden said his only regret was that his eldest son, who had been the state’s attorney general and was looking toward a run for governor before his death, was not the one leaving for Washington to be sworn in as president. Biden’s two surviving children and six of his grandchildren accompanied him to Washington.

The emotion of the Reflecting Pool commemoration and Biden’s raw goodbye to Delaware matched the tumultuous moment in the country’s history as he prepares to take over as president.

More than 20,000 National Guard troops are billeted in the nation’s capital to keep peace during the inauguration. And less than two hours after he spoke, the nation passed the 400,000 mark in covid-19 deaths, even as the coronavirus continues to spread across the nation amid a struggling effort to vaccinate the most vulnerable.

As a result, the events leading up to the inauguration have been subdued rather than celebratory and festive.

Even before the riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago, many events associated with a transfer of power had already been scaled back because of the virus.

On Inauguration Day, formal balls will be replaced with online events. The National Mall, where inaugural observers would have stood, was void of people, instead turned into an artistic canvas filled with hundreds of lights and tens of thousands of flags.

Additional security precautions, including scrapping a train ride Biden planned from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, were made in the days since a deadly mob stormed the Capitol directly after remarks at a rally by Trump.

After the memorial service on Tuesday night, Biden and his family went to Blair House, the official presidential guesthouse across the street from the White House. The White House had extended an invitation for Biden to use the property, but Biden's aides over the past week previously had declined to say whether he would stay at the home, as every president-elect has done since Jimmy Carter.

Biden, who will be the nation's second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, is planning to attend Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral on Wednesday morning. He will be joined by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders.

For the first time in recent memory, the incoming and outgoing presidents are not expected to meet on Inauguration Day. Trump plans to depart the White House for Florida in the morning and will be the first outgoing president to boycott his successor's inauguration since Andrew Johnson declined to attend President Ulysses S. Grant's swearing-in in 1869.

Vice President Pence, however, said Tuesday that he would attend Biden's inauguration rather than Trump's farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews.

Biden's speech on Wednesday is expected to run 20 to 30 minutes and will be "built around the theme of unity" and offer "a forward-looking vision for his presidency while addressing the moment we are living in as a country," according to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private planning.

The inauguration will close the most tumultuous transition in modern history, one that was marked by weeks of false accusations by Trump and other Republicans about the election results, which culminated two weeks ago with a pro-Trump mob storming the very steps where Biden will take the oath of office.

Biden is planning an immediate burst of executive actions designed to undo a slew of measures carried out by Trump over the past four years. He is planning to immediately reenter the Paris climate accords and repeal the ban on U.S. entry for citizens of some majority-Muslim countries.

Biden is expected to sign an order extending nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures and implement a mask-wearing mandate on federal property.

Biden’s team has circulated a top-line list of tentative executive orders that lawmakers should expect to be rolled out over each of the next seven days — an early look at policies and messages the new White House expects to press ahead on in its opening days.

They include directives in key areas in which Biden had promised action, including fighting the coronavirus, providing economic relief, requiring the federal government to procure American goods, forging racial equality, combating climate change, improving access to health care, overhauling the immigration system and restoring the country’s leadership abroad.

The list of Biden’s pending executive orders, confirmed by two people who have seen it and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly, gives a broad overview of what the incoming administration plans to do on its own — without Congress, if necessary — to address the immediate priorities.

The president-elect plans to issue administrative actions relating to the coronavirus on Thursday and economic relief on Friday. A “Buy American” action is slated for Monday, and an order addressing issues of racial equity is anticipated on Tuesday.

Biden plans to announce actions on climate change on Jan. 27, health care on Jan. 28, immigration on Jan. 29, and on Feb. 1, he is expected to take action on international affairs and national security.

Biden also plans to file on Wednesday a sweeping immigration bill, which includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status and an expansion of refugee admissions. At the same time, he plans to press aggressively for a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Biden’s final few days as a private citizen included a mix of family time and homages to his past and to the crises faced by the country.

The president-elect, Jill Biden and other family members packed canned goods and rice into boxes on Monday at Philabundance, Philadelphia's largest hunger-relief program. It was part of a national day of service that kicked the inaugural festivities into high gear, and aides said more than 150 boxes of food were packaged.

On Sunday, his granddaughter Naomi posted a photo of Joe Biden with one of his dogs — an empty box and a framed photo propped on the floor in the background, nodding to the packing going on around them.

“This is kind of emotional for me,” Biden said in Delaware on Tuesday afternoon, addressing a small audience that included longtime friends and allies. “You’ve been with me my whole career — and through the good times and the bad.”

Biden recalled how his parents moved to the state from Pennsylvania under economic duress. He recounted standing on a train platform 12 years earlier, awaiting then-President-elect Barack Obama and speaking to his sons about the changes that had prompted the nation to elect the first Black president.

And now, he said, he was headed to Washington to meet up with Harris, who will be the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president.

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me things can’t change. They can. And they do,’ ” Biden said. “That’s America. That’s Delaware. A place of hope and light and limitless possibilities.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.