President Barack Obama is on track to be one of the least forgiving of presidents in U.S. history — as measured by his use of presidential pardon powers, according to a political science professor who blogs about clemency exercised by presidents and governors.The story mostly relies on the work of our blog-pal Prof. P.S. Ruckman, who writes at Pardon Power, and whose excellent primary-source work Grits has frequently cited. When Washington and Adams were presidents, of course, there were barely any federal convictions they might conceivably pardon! (It took some years for Congress and the states to enact anything remotely resembling functional penal codes, and most prosecutions at the time were brought as private, essentially civil causes of action.) James Garfield, assassinated seven months in, had a good excuse for his low total.
"It is fair to say two things," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., who teaches at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Ill. "One is (Obama) is definitely being exceptionally stingy. There’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that this is in a way unexpected."
As president, Obama has pardoned 23 people, including one commuted sentence, in his first 40 months in office. Barring a dramatic flurry of clemency from the White House in the coming eight months, Obama will be among the bottom two or three presidents for granting pardons in his first term, Ruckman said. That puts him in the running with Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Garfield, who was assassinated after serving less than seven months.
Otherwise, that leaves Barack Obama with functionally the chintziest pardon record among American presidents, at a time when the raft of criminal convictions during the tuff-on-crime era has spawned more pardon requests than ever. Here's a graphic produced by Prof. Ruckman depicting the proportion of pardons given to those requested since WWII by president:
Even George W. Bush appears compassionate by comparison to Obama. "Among recent presidents, George W. Bush had granted 37 pardons and commutations at about this point in his first term. By the end of the year, he had added another 32." Here's Ruckman's depiction of American presidents' historic pardon records before Obama took office:
I don't understand this: Why does the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department exist if they consider essentially no one worthy of clemency? How has the President become so dis-empowered on the question that he can't or won't make independent judgments? Perhaps it's true that the role of advising the President on pardon applications should be removed from the Justice Department and handled instead by some appointed adviser or board who understands their job is to recommend pardons. For reasons Grits can scarcely understand, DOJ's Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to think their job is to find excuses to avoid performing the function for which their division was created, and this president more than any other has acquiesced in the trend. As a constitutional scholar in his own right, Barack Obama of all people should know better.
See prior, related Grits posts: