Pardon Me

President Trump is in the news again (of course!), this time for issuing a controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Arpaio had just been convicted of criminal contempt for knowingly violating a court order requiring his office to stop targeting Latino drivers — a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a fine.  Less than a month after the conviction, and before Arpaio was formally sentenced, President Trump pardoned him and has explained that he felt that Arpaio was treated unfairly.  The pardon has been strongly criticized by a number of groups, and polls show it isn’t very popular with the American people.

The power to pardon is one of the most interesting, unilateral, and absolute powers possessed by the President of the United States.  It’s also one of the powers that is most likely to provoke criticism — except when the President uses that power to pardon the turkey presented to him for his Thanksgiving dinner.  Through the pardon power, the President has the ability to override the decisions of the judicial branch of government and of prior administrations who decided to prosecute the individuals who are pardoned.  The President’s power to pardon was first established by George Washington, who pardoned two men convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for their role in the Whiskey Rebellion, and over time it has been institutionalized — and used in ways that appear to be unseemly.  President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of fugitive Marc Rich, who had been indicted for racketeering, trading with the enemy, and evading income tax and then fled the country for 16 years, was mired in allegations of intrigue, back room deals and campaign contributions that made it look like the pardon power was for sale to the wealthy.

Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is unusual, for coming so soon after Arpaio was convicted and so early in Trump’s term in office.  Because the pardon power tends to  be controversial, Presidents typically wait until the end of their term in office, as President Clinton did, to issue pardons, so they can’t be held accountable by voters.  Trump also acted without following the advice of the Department of Justice unit that has been established to review and recommend pardons — but of course that is the President’s prerogative, as President Washington established more than 200 years ago.

The ability to pardon puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of one man.  With President Trump’s mercurial temperament, we can reasonably expect to see that power used in new and different ways while he remains in office.  At least Trump acted in a way that will allow voters to consider his pardon decision as they decide whether to vote for him, assuming he chooses to run for reelection.  And who knows?  With President Trump being who he is, perhaps he will break with precedent on that turkey pardon, too.

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“Selfie”-Absorbed

The latest thing to apparently go “viral” is a series of photos of President Obama, his wife Michelle, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday.

The President, Cameron, and Thorning-Schmidt joked and took a picture of themselves with a cell phone — called a “selfie” — while Michelle Obama sat to the side.  Countless bits of space on the internet have now been filled with debate about whether taking a “selfie” and sharing a joke during a memorial service is appropriate behavior, interpreting Michelle Obama’s demeanor as depicted in the photos, and trying to read whether she is irked that her husband is chatting and chuckling with the Danish leader.

This incident, in a nutshell, is one of the things about the internet that I find maddening.  So many things go “viral” that viral status seems to be the norm these days, and people fixate on trivial things at the expense of understanding the significant matters.  It’s a shame that anyone running a Google search on the Mandela memorial service will have to wade through commentary about the silly “selfie” incident rather than stories emphasizing the extraordinary fact that leaders from across the world — including the current American president and three former Presidents — traveled to South Africa to pay tribute to a former prisoner who is now regarded as a great historical figure.

So I’m not going to criticize President Obama for posing for a “selfie” and I’m not going to speculate about whether and how his wife Michelle reacted to his behavior.  That’s their business, not mine.  The significant thing is that he and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter saw fit to attend and honor the memory and life of Nelson Mandela, and I’m glad they did.

A House Divided On President Clinton’s Speech

The Webner House was a house divided last night after President Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen President Clinton giving a speech on the national stage, but he hasn’t changed much.  He still has that crinkly voice, the habit of starting every second sentence with “Now” or “Look” or “This is important,” and the finger-wagging and finger-pointing.  He still exudes a kind of roguish folksiness.

Kish thought President Clinton knocked it out of the park with his vigorous defense of President Obama’s performance and critique of the Republicans.  I thought the speech was too long and too unfocused, flitting from topic to topic on hummingbird’s wings without establishing any kind of theme, and not very convincing besides.

Consider President Clinton’s point on gas costs.  He said we should be grateful that the Obama Administration has issued regulations that will require cars to be twice as fuel-efficient in the future, saying that means we’ll be paying half as much for gas because we’ll be driving cars that need only half as much gas.  The problem with that argument is that the federal government has been issuing fuel-efficiency regulations for years, yet our costs increase because the rising price of gasoline outstrips any fuel-efficiency savings.  Is any American paying less for gas these days than they did, say, in 1994?  And, of course, President Clinton only focused on the cost of gas, and not the cost of the car.  How much will it cost to buy a car that meets the new standards? How many people will be able to afford them, and how many of the cars — like the Chevy Volt — will need to be sold with a government subsidy to even approach the range of affordability?

I also was struck by President Clinton’s point that the big difference between his tenure and now could be summarized in one word:  arithmetic.  He argued that Republican proposals don’t add up.  The use of “arithmetic” is interesting because a popular t-shirt in Republican circles these days is a play on the famous 2008 Obama “hope” poster; it features a silk screen of Paul Ryan with the word “Math.”  Republicans argue that it is President Obama’s budget proposals that violate basic principles of mathematics and are based on phony “savings” and overly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.  Is President Obama well-suited to attack Republican arithmetic when he has presided over a series of years that have produced trillion-dollar deficits, and his own budgets forecast enormous deficits for the foreseeable future?

Finally, President Clinton argued that no President, including Clinton himself, could have fixed the problems President Obama inherited in only four years.  The fundamental premise in that argument, of course, is that President Obama hasn’t repaired the damage in four years.  Even if you accept that conditions when President Obama took office were historically unprecedented, the problem is that President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other members of the Administration confidently predicted that the problems would be fixed and that the economy would be roaring ahead at this point.  Obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Some Americans may pause to wonder why we should reelect someone who hasn’t delivered on his assurances and now is saying that the job was tougher than he led us to believe.

Voting With Their Pocketbooks?

Here’s an interesting story:  former President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold as many copies in one month as former President Bill Clinton’s book, My Life, has sold in six years.  The book’s publisher apparently has been amazed by its sales success.

I don’t think the book’s success means that people like Bush better than Clinton, or that people think Bush was a better President or is a better writer.  Instead, the reality is that — whether you love Bush or think he is just this side of Satan — the story of Bush’s presidency is much more compelling than the story of Clinton’s life.

The country never faced a great crisis under Clinton, but it did under Bush.  In comparison to the deadly trauma of 9/11, and how to respond to it, the Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the Lewinsky scandal, and the various other international and domestic challenges of the Clinton presidency pale into insignificance.  And the key players in the Bush presidency are much more vivid than in the Clinton presidency.  Who makes a better read:  Dick Cheney or Al Gore?

 

Beginning To Question The Dude

As we close in on Election Day, the professional punditry is talking a lot about President Obama.  They are arguing about whether it was smart for him to appear on The Daily Show, where he was called “dude” and his administration was the butt of gibes by Jon Stewart.  (Stewart’s reference to the President as “dude” made me laugh and think of Richard’s classic post, The Follies of Dudism.) They are speculating about whether he will “pivot” or “triangulate” or pull a Bill Clinton if the Republicans take over the House of Representatives.  They are questioning whether the President has lost the communications war and failed to explain the many “accomplishments” of his Administration to the American people.  John Kerry, for example, apparently thinks the American people are becoming a bunch of ignorant “know-nothings.”

Maureen Dowd’s column yesterday is along such lines.  She is starting to question the President and wondering when he is going to show the political deftness and communications skills he was hailed for in 2008.  You can see that some skepticism is beginning to creep in — she notes, for example, that the President will need to summon “political skills that he has not yet shown he has” — but she still speaks of the mysterious failure to convince the public of his “achievements.”  She suggests that he hasn’t used his “charm” as effectively as he could have and didn’t realize he needed to “sell” his ideas or respond to attacks, all of which has caused people to rush into the arms of “disturbingly inferior pols.”

I don’t remember President Obama being shy about talking to us about why he believed that the “health care reform” legislation was great, or how the “stimulus” legislation would be an engine for job creation, or why we needed to bail out GM and Chrysler and shield them from the consequences of decades of crappy products and poor business decisions.  I think there is a simpler explanation for the President’s current predicament:  the American people do understand what he has done and don’t really consider most of it to be an “achievement.”  And at some point, the punditry may come to recognize that, perhaps, President Obama is not quite the infinitely charming, brilliant, awesomely superior politician they still consider him to be.  They may look at his actual political record and realize that no master politician would have managed to take a sweeping electoral victory, huge majorities in both Houses of Congress, and the legitimate good wishes of a large majority of the American people and in two short years fritter it away to the point where the President’s party is on the brink of absorbing an historic defeat at the polls.

I think it will be good for both the President and the country when the public comes to realize that he is not some otherworldly figure.  He will be able to serve in his office unburdened by unattainable expectations.  The American people, on the other hand, will learn once again that we should not look to politicians for immediate salvation.

Business As Usual

I really haven’t followed the Joe Sestak/Barack Obama/Arlen Specter story because I didn’t care about the outcome.  Now that the full story has been told — at least, according to the White House — it is weirder than I thought it would be.  According to the report, President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, dispatched former President Clinton to approach Sestak and offer him an unpaid position on an obscure advisory board if he would drop out of the primary against Specter.  Sestak declined, then disclosed that decision in an interview where he suggested the job that he turned down had a bit more meat — like the Secretary of the Navy, for example.

What is strange about this story is that the White House thought that Sestak would ditch his chance to run against a weakened, mush-mouthed, party-changing hack for a chance to get a coveted seat in the U.S. Senate in exchange for a seat on the 36-member Federal Advisory Board on Widget Construction, or something similar.  Did they really think even a master arm-twister like Bill Clinton could sell such an empty and one-sided bargain?  And it is weird that Sestak would trumpet his decision and make it out to be some incredible act of intestinal fortitude, when the actual offer was about as tempting as 2010 season tickets to the Cleveland Indians at a five percent discount off face value.  If the White House account is true, both sides look pretty stupid.

The AP has a story today about how this episode really hurts President Obama’s reputation as a “different kind” of politician.  I don’t agree with that, because I really doubt that any voter has viewed him from that perspective for months.  His effort to portray himself as a squeaky clean, “transparent” anti-politician took a few mortal hits below the water line and sank like a stone during the crass, endless “health care reform” horse-trading and deal-cutting.  No, the people who support President Obama right now do so because they agree with his agenda and think he can accomplish the policy initiatives they support.  To me, the harm for President Obama is not that this incident hurts his reputation as a pristine politician, but rather that it hurts his reputation as a capable politician.  Why in the world was President Obama running interference for a hopeless and undependable dish rag like Arlen Specter?  Specter must have driven some kind of seriously unholy bargain with the President to create that kind of political obligation.  Why would the President agree to such a bargain under the circumstances?