“With the power vested in me, I grant Popcorn full reprieve from a future of stuffing and cranberry sauce.” — President Obama, Wednesday

AT LEAST MR. OBAMA is aware that he possesses the power of clemency. Unpardonably, though, with the exception of the silly Thanksgiving ritual in which he spares a turkey by executive order, he virtually never discusses this prerogative, and he rarely uses it. In fact, no modern president comes close to Mr. Obama in meting out mercy so rarely and so stingily.

In his first term in office, Ronald Reagan signed 250 pardons for federal inmates; George H.W. Bush authorized 77 and Bill Clinton, 56. Mr. Obama granted just 23. (Including more granted this spring, his total is now up to 39.) According to an analysis by ProPublica, which studied applications for pardons processed by the Justice Department, Mr. Obama has granted clemency to just 2 percent of applicants. By contrast, Mr. Reagan pardoned about a third of such applicants; Mr. Clinton 12 percent; and the elder George Bush about 7 percent. Even George W. Bush, a Texan who took his tough-on-crime credentials seriously, extended pardons at a rate slightly higher than Mr. Obama. (Mr. Obama also has ignored his power to grant commutations of sentences — typically shortening them to time served; he has commuted just one since taking office.)

As Huffington Post noted, so far in his presidency Mr. Obama has pardoned about the same number of drug offenders (11) as turkeys (10).

Possibly, part of the problem is that the office reviewing the applications is located in the Justice Department and staffed mainly by career prosecutors loath to recommend leniency. But the bigger hang-up may be in the White House.

There is little political upside to forgiving convicted criminals or shortening their sentences. But there is a question of principle here, as Mr. Obama has acknowledged. He said, as a candidate, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has since reiterated, that America must revisit its policy of imposing decades-long sentences on nonviolent drug offenders. Those over-the-top penalties also apply to offenses involving marijuana, whose use has been legalized in some states and is moving toward legalization in others.

Federal judges frequently complain of the draconian sentences they are required to hand down in even low-level and nonviolent drug cases. Mr. Holder says he is determined to pare sentences for older and nonviolent inmates and reform sentencing laws so that certain convicts who pose little risk to society receive punishments short of incarceration.

The chances that Congress would enact such reforms are low. But Mr. Obama can act in selected cases on his own, empowered by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which permits him the ability “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.” That virtually unrestricted power has been used too sparingly for many years. Mr. Obama is extending the trend in the wrong direction.

Read more on this issue from Opinions:

George Lardner: Obama’s pardon power is underutilized