Biden Takes the Wheel

Preparing to take the helm of a country in crisis, Biden declares: “There’s always light.” It’s Inauguration Day, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

Where things stand

Joe Biden will be sworn in as president this morning in a scaled-down Inauguration Day ceremony. Despite the lack of a meaningful crowd, the event will mostly adhere to custom: Biden will give his inaugural address after taking the oath and will then conduct a traditional review of military troops.

Tonight, in lieu of the usual inaugural balls in Washington, the Presidential Inaugural Committee has organized a TV event at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Hosted by Tom Hanks, it will feature performances from Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Foo Fighters, Demi Lovato and Jon Bon Jovi, among others.

When he speaks today, Biden is likely to zero in on a message of unity. And he will almost certainly emphasize how needed that collective spirit is right now, as the country faces one of its worst public health crises. The coronavirus’s official death toll just passed 400,000, and the nation has averaged nearly 3,000 virus deaths a day since December.

Speaking outdoors yesterday in Wilmington, Del., as he prepared to leave for Washington, Biden insisted that better days lay ahead. “I know these are dark times, but there’s always light,” he said.

“Don’t tell me things can’t change,” he added later. “They can, and they do. That’s America, that’s Delaware — a place of hope and light and limitless possibilities.”

Late last night, President Trump pardoned Stephen Bannon, his former White House chief strategist, who was charged with defrauding political donors who wanted to build a border wall.

White House officials described the pardon as a pre-emptive move that would effectively wipe away Bannon’s charges if he were convicted. It was an unusual move because he had yet to stand trial: Most grants of clemency by presidents have been for those who were convicted and sentenced.

Despite the shadow of the coronavirus and the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 that he helped incite, Trump sounded a defiant tone in his video farewell address.

“We did what we came here to do, and so much more,” he said. “The movement we started is only just beginning.”

But surveys tell a different story. The president’s approval ratings are the worst of his tenure, according to polls. A Pew Research Center survey released yesterday found that just 29 percent of American adults said Trump should continue to be a major political figure in the years ahead.

Four in five Americans think the country’s democracy is under threat, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll conducted after the Capitol attack.

The Senate yesterday began the confirmation process for Biden’s top appointees, with a packed schedule of hearings. Among the nominees testifying yesterday were Janet Yellen, Biden’s choice for Treasury secretary; Alejandro Mayorkas, for secretary of homeland security; Avril Haines, for director of national intelligence; Lloyd Austin, for secretary of defense; and Antony Blinken, for secretary of state.

Holdups to the transition process have badly delayed the confirmations, and Biden is likely to be the first president in decades to take office without his national security team in place on Day 1.

The hearings were the last major item of official business that the Senate will hear before Senator Mitch McConnell surrenders his post as majority leader. After being sworn in as vice president, Kamala Harris plans to administer the oath to Georgia’s two Democratic senators-elect, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Thus ends a six-year Republican majority in the chamber: With the Senate now split, 50-50, Harris will be in a position to cast the deciding vote.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the incoming majority leader, said yesterday that the Senate would tackle a three-pronged agenda, convening Trump’s second impeachment trial; seeking to confirm Biden’s nominees; and working on another round of coronavirus relief legislation.

Yesterday, for the first time, McConnell publicly blamed Trump for having “provoked” the mob that stormed the Capitol.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”

McConnell has not indicated whether he intends to vote to convict Trump of incitement of insurrection, the charge on which the House impeached the president this month. But he has said privately that he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses.

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is breathing a sigh of relief after the Justice Department announced yesterday that it would not pursue charges against him for insider trading, after he dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock in the early days of the pandemic.

At the heart of the department’s investigation was the question of whether Burr, who was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acted in his own financial interest based on nonpublic information about the coronavirus that he received at senators-only briefings.

Other senators drew scrutiny for similar trades, including Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the departing Georgia senators. But Burr’s case proved far more involved, and lasted months longer. There were grand jury subpoenas and a search of his electronic storage accounts; the F.B.I. even seized his cellphone, a highly invasive tactic for a sitting legislator that required the attorney general’s OK.

Photo of the day

Joe Biden; his wife, Jill Biden; Kamala Harris; and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, visited the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool yesterday to honor lives lost to the coronavirus.

How gerrymandering could worsen polarization

The image of armed intruders forcing their way into the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the election results was only an extreme example of the deep divisions and distrust that define American politics today.

One major driver of political polarization is gerrymandering — the redrawing of districts to make them less competitive for the ruling party. And as our reporters Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti point out in a new article, many of the Republicans in the House who have most vociferously backed Trump’s false claims about election fraud represent heavily gerrymandered districts.

Reid took a moment to chat about gerrymandering’s impact, and how the problem could get worse with the nationwide redistricting process set to take place this year.

Latest Updates

Is it safe to say that gerrymandering has helped radicalize a considerable part of the House’s Republican caucus?

This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, but all the incentives of a gerrymandered legislature — both in Washington and in state capitols — are to pay the most attention to primary electorates. During the Trump era, that was less about radicalizing Republican members than it was about maintaining their loyalty to Trump no matter what.

You chose to focus on Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio as an example of an extremely pro-Trump Republican in a wonky district. What does he symbolize about this issue?

Take a look at Jordan’s district — it looks like a duck. Stretching across parts of 14 counties in five media markets, the district appears designed to make it virtually impossible for any kind of challenger to gain traction. Add to that Jordan’s aggressive fealty to Trump, and he is easily one of the members of Congress most incentivized to play only to the Republican base.

Democrats didn’t gain control of a single state legislature in the November elections. Republicans now control both the legislature and the governorship in 23 states. When states redraw their congressional district lines later this year in that once-in-a-decade redistricting process, are we likely to see gerrymandering grow even more severe in some places?

Yes. Florida and Texas are likely to gain seats in Congress, and in each state Republicans will have sole authority to draw the new district lines. Democratic states like Illinois and New York will lose seats and have newly empowered Democratic legislatures that may draw fewer Republican seats than have existed in the 2010s.

Some states are looking to curtail the practice of partisan maps. Voters in Michigan and Virginia have passed independent redistricting commissions (joining Arizona, California and Iowa, which already have them). But only the courts can put a stop to the worst gerrymanders — and the Supreme Court has been disinclined to do so.

Beyond the House of Representatives, what kind of ripple effect does gerrymandering have on state politics in those places where a single party controls the entire state government?

Since the election, we’ve seen Republican-controlled state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin hold hearings to amplify false claims of voter fraud that led to Biden winning their states. In each state, Republicans drew the legislative maps after sweeping victories in 2010, effectively cementing themselves 10-year majorities.

Those lawmakers then made it harder to vote and, ahead of last year’s pandemic-era election in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, wrote the very vote-counting rules that Trump and his allies later falsely claimed had led to a fraudulent outcome. It all comes full circle.

New York Times Podcasts

How Republicans view the riot at the Capitol

Ahead of Biden’s inauguration, “The Daily” called up Trump supporters to hear their thoughts about the Capitol attack and its aftermath.

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