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Analysis

The President Goes to Prison

But Congress is the place to watch.

Why were so many people surprised to learn Friday that no sitting president ever has visited a federal prison? Inmates don’t vote, or have any political power or the reasonable expectation of getting some, and politicians and their handlers discovered ages ago that they can make whatever political points they wish to make about being “tough on crime” by using ominous photographs (sometimes darkened) of prisoners. It’s always been safer and smarter in American politics to pose with a prosecutor or a cop or a victim or even a witness than it has been to pose with a convicted felon.

Nor should anyone be surprised that our president has chosen to be the nation’s first chief executive to visit inmates in federal custody, traveling later this week to Oklahoma to visit corrections officers and their wards — low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals — at the medium-security prison called FCI El Reno. The time is right for such a bold visit. There is today national bipartisan support for reforming the way we deal with those who break the law.

We can safely assume that movement is both the cause and, potentially, a beneficiary of this historic visit. The trip to Oklahoma surely wouldn’t be happening if Charles Koch and company (and a growing group of Republican legislators and presidential aspirants) weren’t already on the record in support of some version of criminal justice reforms that have traditionally been a Democratic agenda. (As an aside, it will be fascinating this week to see how the president’s justice campaign cleaves the Republican field. What will Mike Huckabee say this week, and how will it contrast with what Rand Paul says?)

The television cameras no doubt will focus on the larger meaning of the president’s visit to El Reno — the first black president travels to a red state, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, to visit a symbol of the mass incarceration that has devastated generations of black men in America. But the White House’s criminal justice campaign this week is about much more than that. Already, as promised weeks ago, Obama has issued executive orders commuting the sentences of 46 federal prisoners, men, and women whose lengthy punishment, the president said Monday, did not fit their nonviolent drug crimes.

And Tuesday in Philadelphia, the president is expected to make a major criminal justice speech at the NAACP’s national conference (highlighting, again, the racial component of the issue). Anyone want to bet against the president’s invocation in that speech of the broad conservative support for the sort of decarceration, sentencing reform, and prison accountability the NAACP has been seeking for decades? Obama knows he will be preaching to the choir, but both he and his audience (and the rest of us watching) know that the choir has grown around the nation to include political voices that for decades have opposed these types of justice reforms.

The message from Obama to Congress, in coupling a plea for legislation with a unilateral act of clemency, will be clear: pass the reform legislation you say you support so that I don’t have to try to continue to ease federal incarceration by myself. And, right on cue, as if the whole thing were choreographed, the House of Representatives seems to be listening. This week — Tuesday and Wednesday — the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a two-day hearing, with the bipartisan SAFE Justice Act as its primary focus. That legislation is one of the primary criminal justice measures Congress could pass this session, and if it were passed, it would both reduce the number of federal inmates and help the lot of those federal inmates who will remain behind bars.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that if such legislation isn’t enacted soon, before the 2016 race gets serious, it won’t be enacted for many years to come. Maybe yes and maybe no. The good news is that we shouldn’t have to wait too long to get answers to essential questions like these: Will the personalized Obama campaign this week and the media attention it generates help force the matter to a vote that reformers on both sides of the aisle think they will win? Or will the president’s stagecraft, at a particularly delicate juncture in the negotiations over details, poison the conservative appetite for reform?

Will the visceral hostility some Republican lawmakers feel for anything associated with this president trump a reform agenda that has the blessing of Charles Koch, and the advocates at Right on Crime, and the publisher of the American Conservative magazine, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal?

When the president enters the prison at FCI El Reno on Thursday, he will be entering a symbol not just of some of the damage caused by mass incarceration but also of government itself at its very worst — oppressive, arbitrary, injurious, unresponsive, and unrepentant. Congress and the White House now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to begin to change that. The political will appears evident. The logic for change appears to bridge ideological divides. The moment is here. This is the week. The president will make some history. The big question now is whether Congress will, too.