George W. Lardner, Jr. has an excellent op-ed in today's Washington Post, a successor, in a way, to an earlier similar op-ed in the New York Times in 2010. Both make the same basic point: The Constitution unequivocally gives the President of the United States the power to pardon anyone for any crime committed against the United States. It can be used wisely (Warren G. Harding's pardon of Eugene V. Debs--which was followed by a meeting, at Harding's request, at the White House, in which he said, "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally"--which is enough in my book to remove Harding as the candidate for America's worst President) or unwisely (Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, George H.W. Bush's pardons of Caspar Weinberger and Eliot Abrams), but it is an important part of the President's power. As Lardner points out in today's column, if Obama shares his Attorney General's view that the US has incarcerated far too many people for far too long prison terms as part of the "war on drugs," there's actually a very simple solution: The President can commute all of the sentences to time-served, save for the kingpins who deserve their mandatory (or even longer) sentences. Similarly, if push comes to shove, he can announce an amnesty for everyone who entered the country illegally prior to, say, January 1, 2012 or everyone who has overstayed a visa (which I gather "explains" far more "illegal aliens" than does initial illegal entry). To be sure, that would create a huge political firestorm, but, hey, what does he have to lose?
It's clear that his second term is shaping up to be a failure, some of which may be his own fault; some of which is simply the fault of circumstances that he really can't control, like the current chaos in the Middle East, where I continue to believe that his judgment is far, far better than, say, that of Sen. John McCain, who almost literally has never seen a war he didn't want the US to get involved in; and some/most of it the fault of the Constitution, which gives the mad-dog Republicans who control the House of Representatives the power to torpedo any and all legislative initiatives supported by the President. But, as already indicated, Obama can't blame the Republicans or the intricacies of the American alliance system in the Middle East for his remarkable failure, in what is now the fifth year of his presidency, to use his Pardon Power in a way that might both provide individual mercy and at the same time educate the public about the pathologies of our so-called "criminal justice" system.
He has proved quite willing to abuse the prerogatives of office, like many other presidents, when he believes that "national security" is at stake. But he appears altogether unwilling to use an undoubted prerogative of office to help a bunch of truly vulnerable people and, by the way, save the US a whole heap of money that is now devoted to their incarceration. One gets the distinct feeling that he issues any pardons at all only under extreme pressure (something like his pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey). One of the reasons I viewed Mitt Romney with contempt was the pride he took in never using his power as Governor of Massachusetts to issue a pardon. Obama, I am afraid, is only slightly better than Mitt on this score.