Obama's White House Pardons: Turkeys, Yes; Humans, No

President Obama with daughters and turkey

hide captionPresident Obama pets "Apple," the turkey who got a presidential Thanksgiving pardon at the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo

On the day that President Obama performed the traditional pre-Thanksgiving White House turkey pardon, some observers see an irony worth noting.

The president has now pardoned four very fortunate members of the poultry species.

Which is exactly four more creatures of that species than humans to receive presidential pardons.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro, who covers the White House and is working on a piece for All Things Considered, wrote in a note to me:

Historically, the pardon power has been a key part of the checks and balances system.

Founding fathers knew the law is not perfect, so they gave presidents the power to remedy bad outcomes.

Truman issued 2,044 pardons, Eisenhower, 1,187, Kennedy 575, Johnson 1187 and Nixon 926.  Ninety percent of these pardons go to people nobody has ever heard of who have served their time; the pardon expunges their record, allows them to serve on a jury, vote, own a firearm, etc. (These and the following stats come from P.S. Ruckman's Pardon Power blog.)

The president expends basically no political capital to pardon these people. But recently, presidents have been much more reticent to use the pardon power.

Bush senior issued 77 total pardons during 4 years, and Bush junior issued 200. (Clinton issued a total of 459, including Mark Rich, a debacle that helped give pardons a bad name.)

GWB didn’t issue his first pardons until December 23, 2 years into his presidency.  Clinton’s first pardons came 672 days into his term. Compare that to the average length of time before a first presidential pardon: 100 days.

Pardon experts had thought that Obama would be different: He is not a former governor (they tend to pardon less), he is a lawyer (they tend to pardon more), and he was critical of mandatory minimum sentencing laws during the campaign.

So far, the predictions have proven false: he has issued zero human pardons (compared to 2 turkeys each year).

Dan Froomkin at Huffington Post also has a piece on how stingy the president has been with pardons to humans. George Lardner Jr. has a New York Times op-ed on the issue as well.

Why has Obama been so reluctant to pardon anyone, especially since the expectations were that he would be more forward leaning in this area?

Observers believe it's partly about potential political liability. As Clinton proved, pardon's can become politically toxic. A HuffPo excerpt:

But the lack of pardons is a symptom of a more basic problem, (Clinton Administration pardon attorney Margaret Colgate) Love told HuffPost. "This White House has shown itself really not very interested in criminal justice issues generally." (Love wrote a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month.)

And Attorney General Eric Holder bears responsibility too. Holder, whose reputation was badly tarnished by his role in Clinton's last-minute pardon for a fugitive financier, seems averse to getting involved again. And among other things, he has allowed the Bush-era pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rogers, to stay on. Rogers, a longtime prosecutor, took over in 2008 after Bush's previous appointee was accused of mismanagement and of making racially offensive statements.

Obama "should appoint his own pardon attorney and decide how he wants to use his power," Love said.

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