I swear I was just musing yesterday about what kind of pardons Barack Obama had issued during the first 17 months of his presidency and meant to do some research on the topic, but the Daily Caller beat me to it. What kind of sentences has he commuted, and who did he release from prison? For whom had he cleared records of criminality? His three immediate predecessors had controversial records on pardons, but Obama seems to have avoided that thus far — by having none at all:
President Obama, during his 533 days in office, has issued no pardons and commuted no sentences. Only four other presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — waited longer to use their constitutional power of clemency, and Obama is on track to pass at least two of them.
If no clemency actions are taken by Sunday, July 11, Obama will surpass Adams’s 536 days. If Obama waits until Christmas to approve his first pardons, as experts believe he will, he’ll pass Clinton’s 672 days on Nov. 24. The average wait until first pardon, across all 43 presidents (including Obama’s time to date), is 133 days. …
Lee and Ruckman both guessed that Obama’s first pardons will come around Christmas.
“What presidents tend to do is pile them up, so to speak, and then dump them in December,” Ruckman said.
By that time, he will have waited the third-longest of any president, rivaled only by Bush Jr., who held off for 702 days before exercising his clemency power, and Washington, who waited 1,811 days. But Ruckman said Washington can’t be compared with the others.
As I recall, George W. Bush got a lot of criticism for the dearth of pardons during his tenure, especially in his first term. The media complained about his miserly attitude towards executive clemency, and then assumed he would exercise it in the case of Scooter Libby. That track record was used to paint Bush as cold-hearted, although to be fair, his record for clemency was pretty thin as governor of Texas as well. So far, the media hasn’t seen fit to hold Obama to the same standard — and in other news, did you know that water is wet?
However, it’s not hard to figure out why Obama has avoided it altogether. Presidents rarely win points for pardons and commutations, but they risk getting embarrassed by them every time. It’s an arena where risk-averse policies give greater reward than generosity. The only news that comes out of executive clemency is bad, as Clinton can attest with his pardon of Marc Rich while still a fugitive (and who later allegedly took part in the Oil-for-Food scam), and of FALN terrorists when Hillary needed votes from the Puerto Rican community in New York for her Senate run. That’s the reason that Presidents dump the pardons in December; most people are paying attention to Christmas shopping instead of political news.
Obama isn’t the first President to make that calculation, and given his polling slide, it’s hard to blame him for his reluctance to risk issuing pardons and commutations. However, he’s the first President in a while not to hear much griping about it.