Politeness is always welcome, but it’s not owing to an outbreak of good manners that President Obama is hearing a barrage of “pardon me.” Rather, it’s a sign that a president is soon to leave the White House, taking with him his power and authority to grant clemency to those on the nation’s naughty list. To yearn for redemption is human nature, but the president must reserve it for those who deserve it.
Among the list of pardon-seekers is Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant who walked away from his unit in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban until swapped for five terrorists in a 2014. He faces court martial in April and if convicted could serve life in prison. The White House hailed the swap as an example of U.S. commitment to the principle of never leaving troops behind. Critics called it giving in to hostage-takers.
Mr. Obama may be anxious to excuse the soldier to put an end to the drama over an unpopular act that might tarnish the legacy he obsesses about. Doing so, though, would only serve to undermine the military ethic that places above all loyalty to country on the battlefield. The president should understand that such misplaced mercy would be part of his legacy, too.
Although she hasn’t sought one, officially, certain pundits ask whether Hillary Clinton will request a pre-emptive pardon. She got a pass from the FBI for her highly suspicious handling of classified material as secretary of State, but the election results confirmed her conviction in the court of public opinion. President-elect Donald Trump has moderated his campaign threat to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Mrs. Clinton’s missteps, and to “lock her up.” Mr. Obama might be tempted to nail shut the door to the Clinton closet, where bones still occasionally rattle.
Executive clemency is an almost divine authority that the Framers of the Constitution endowed in the highest office in the land. Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the founding document states: “The President … shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” It can take the form of a commutation, which reduces or eliminates a sentence being served without overturning it. Or it can be administered as a pardon, which forgives a crime on the assumption that the transgressor has accepted responsibility for the misdeed, and regrets it.
Every outgoing president gets petitions from supplicants saying they’re sorry, and Mr. Obama has primed the pump with his Clemency Initiative, which encourages federal inmates to seek mercy. To show that he means it, the president has pardoned more than 1,000 prisoners, most of them drug offenders, and more than his past 11 predecessors combined. “It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison,” Mr. Obama writes on Facebook. No one should dismiss the value of forgiveness, but neither should it be forgotten that drug crimes visit violence on family and friends of abusers.
The president’s generous application of constitutional privilege has prompted calls for a sweeping pardon for nearly a million illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children and were granted temporary amnesty, the so-called Dreamers. The response from the White House is a reluctant no. Dreamers don’t need clemency from a criminal violation — they need legal immigration status.
A president is not above taking matters in his own hands, though, as a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys attest after recently being spared the White House ax. President Obama should be compassionate, but careful that he doesn’t extend his clemency to more turkeys.