"The whole night was magical," the first lady tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sean Neumann
February 03, 2021 03:25 PM

President Joe Biden's inauguration last month "seemed so surreal," according to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, but a few moments stood out above the rest.

As the Bidens were formally introduced before the president's swearing-in on Jan. 20, two marines opened the doors of the U.S. Capitol for them to walk out to the ceremony on the building's west front. That's when, Dr. Biden tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story, "it hit me" that her husband was about to take the oath as the country's 46th president.

"I could just feel this lump in my throat," says the new first lady, 69. "And two of my grandkids said to me, 'Nana, we saw that it hit you.' I thought that was so funny, because I thought I was hiding it so well."

Speaking with PEOPLE for their first White House interview, the Bidens recalled what the unprecedented inauguration — in the shadow of a deadly pandemic and the deadly U.S. Capitol attack — was like for both of them.

"This was maybe one of the most consequential inaugurations in a long, long time — not because I was being sworn in, but in the sense of what the state of the nation is, between everything from COVID to unemployment to racial inequality," President Biden says. "We wanted to make sure that as many Americans could participate as possible, and it turns out millions of people watched it."

"I thought it was really uplifting, just from the musical talent to the poet to Joe's speech and what he had to say, to offer hope to all Americans," Dr. Biden says.

Amanda Gorman, the national youth poet laureate who read a work written for the occasion, was a highlight: "I loved Amanda Gorman."

• For more from Joe and Jill Biden's first White House interview, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

joe and jill biden
Credit: Celeste Sloman
Joe Biden and Jill Biden watching fireworks
From left: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Joe Biden at the White House on inauguration night
| Credit: President Joe Biden walks down the West Wing Colonnade of the White House Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, en route to the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The Bidens stepped into history "together," Dr. Biden says, while the president agrees.

"Together, all of us," Biden, 78, says, reflecting on the historic day spent with the extended first family including son Hunter and daughter Ashley and six grandchildren, including Hunter's baby son, Beau.

The president says the moment that sticks with him was his oath-taking, "looking at the chief [justice] and seeing out and Jill holding the Bible and our son and daughter standing there, and I could see behind them my grandchildren — and it just made me feel so proud that we were all part of history here."

The Biden family celebrated the president's swearing-in ceremony that night with a stripped-down version of the traditional festivities — such as a ball — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, inauguration organizers put on a primetime TV special that included remarks by both Biden and new Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as musical performances.

The evening finished with Katy Perry singing "Firework" as actual fireworks exploded over Washington, D.C., with the Bidens looking on from the White House

Viewers at home caught an intimate moment from the family settling into their new home when TV cameras showed President Biden dancing with his infant grandson, Beau.

The baby — named after Biden's late son Beau, who died from brain cancer in 2015 — smiled in his grandfather's right arm and wore a little suit vest as the two rocked back-and-forth to Demi Lovato's virtual performance of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day."

President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden
Credit: Celeste Sloman

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: President Biden and Dr. Biden streaming now on, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

Joe Biden
Credit: Official White House Photo By Adam Schultz

The elder Beau was there for Inauguration Day, too, his dad believes.

"Jill's going to warn me not to say this — because I sometimes get emotional, but I won't — is that Beau was there, our son Beau, who was an incredible man and he was there in his namesake, his nephew Beauy," the president says.

He adds, "I don't know, it just seemed—"

"Complete," Dr. Biden says.

(Nonetheless, President Biden notes with a laugh, "I can't dance very well.")

All throughout Inauguration Day, Dr. Biden says, the "excitement was palpable," even under the circumstances.

"It was still magical," she says. "Really, the whole night was magical."

And once it was over, reality began to sink in and their new lives began.

"It's surreal, but it's comfortable," President Biden says of their return. "[I] spent a lot of time here in the cabinet room and in the Oval with the President [Barack Obama], but upstairs is new. It didn't seem like that much was changing, including the Inauguration, until we walked through the door with our grandkids. It was like oh, I guess things have changed!"