TIME TO PICK UP THE PACE ON JUDICIAL NOMINATIONS…. President Obama had a real opportunity to reshape the direction of the federal judiciary, and set it on a more progressive path. That opportunity is slipping away.

The Obama administration has a good shot at setting a couple of modern indoor records for a president halfway through his first term: fewest number of judicial nominees and, with strong assistance from Senate Republicans, fewest number of judges placed on the bench.

As of the Senate’s return Monday, President Obama will have officially nominated 56 judges for the federal district and appeals courts (not counting one for the Supreme Court), according to Capitol Hill data. That’s fewer than either Bill Clinton (77) or George W. Bush (98) had in mid-April of their second years.

Even though the Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate of 60 votes until three months ago, the Senate has confirmed only 18 of Obama’s nominees, far fewer than half those confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate in mid-April in Clinton’s first two years (46, not counting a Supreme Court pick) or the (barely) Democratic majority Bush dealt with (43).

There are now more than 100 vacancies on the federal bench. They need to be filled.

To be sure, an important part of the problem is the unprecedented obstructionism from Senate Republicans. GOP senators have blocked strong nominees for no reason, and brought the entire process to a crawl. And while that is clearly scandalous, it’s also true that the Obama White House isn’t sending enough judicial nominees to the Senate for consideration.

At this point in Clinton’s presidency, the president had nominated 65 district court picks. For Bush, it was 70. Obama, however, has only nominated 38. The current president has only seen 11 of his district court nominees confirmed — less than a third of Bush’s total from this point in his presidency, and Bush had a more evenly-divided Senate. (See chart below)

I’m not even sure why Obama is coming up short on this front. Yes, he has a fuller plate and longer to-do list than any modern president, but the White House surely has a team of officials who work on judicial nominations who don’t have to deal with the economic crisis, the wars, health care, etc. Even if Republicans would likely block most of the president’s would-be jurists, shouldn’t the White House at least be sending more nominees to the Senate?

Veteran NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg recently said the administration has been incredibly slow in making nominations to the federal courts, and describing it as “frankly confounding.”

A dozen law professors from elite schools sent the president a letter in February urging him to act with “far more energy and dispatch” on this. That was good advice.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.