By the end of Tuesday’s ceremony, Obama will have awarded at least 114 Medals of Freedom, more than any other president. (We say “at least” because counting the number of awards is more complicated than you’d imagine. For example, both Bill and Melinda Gates will receive a Medal for their joint work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In our count, we count joint awards as a single medal.)
Although awarding the Medal of Freedom is perhaps less critical than the domestic and foreign policymaking that occupies most of a president’s time, it is still an important — and revealing — act for several reasons.
First, the Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. Awarded at the president’s discretion, it carries symbolic meaning by highlighting the types of accomplishments he values among our nation’s civic and cultural leaders.
Second, when awarding a medal, the president permanently associates himself with the people he chooses for the honor. Presidents can use the Medal of Freedom to appeal to an important demographic or constituency group, which, in turn, could help to shape their legacy.
To better understand presidential choices for the Medals of Freedom, we constructed an original database of Medal of Freedom recipients since the Kennedy administration using data from presidential libraries, the American Presidency Project, and Bruce Wetterau’s book, “The Presidential Medal of Freedom: Winners and Their Achievements.” Our online supplement details how each president has awarded Medals of Freedom since the Medal’s inception in 1963.
Starting in the Reagan administration, presidents began hosting larger Medal of Freedom ceremonies, now often recognizing five or more recipients at a time. Obama has taken this practice to a new level — he has, on average, awarded more Medals per ceremony (12.67) and more Medals per year (14.25) than any other president. And he is going out with a bang, awarding more Medals of Freedom than in any single ceremony during his presidency (20), nearly doubling his average from previous ceremonies (11.8).
Like his predecessors, Obama also seems to be using the Medal of Freedom to try to shape his legacy. Indeed, it is common for presidents to award many Medals during the “lame duck” period when they are preparing to leave office. Since 1963, the lame duck period has consumed about 3 percent of a president’s time in office, but 17 percent of Medals of Freedom have been awarded during these periods. Presidents are five times more likely to award Medals at the end of their term of office than at other times in their presidency.
A third reason to care about the Medal of Freedom is that it highlights yet another source of differences between Democrats and Republicans. While presidents of both parties tend to recognize public servants, artists, business and religious leaders, Democratic presidents are more likely to recognize people in the areas of civil rights, humanitarianism/philanthropy, and organized labor. Republican presidents have been more likely to recognize achievements for military service and journalism/broadcasting.
We do not find systematic difference in the rate at which Democrats and Republicans recognize women with a Medal of Freedom. But Democratic presidents are more likely than Republicans to bestow the award on ethnic and racial minorities.
Obama has widened that gap. He has awarded Medals of Freedom to more nonwhite recipients (44) than any other president, and a higher percentage of total recipients (38.9 percent). The same is true for women, who have received more Medals (41) and at a higher rate (36.3 percent) than under any previous president.
Perhaps most striking about Tuesday’s ceremony is that nine of the 20 awards (45 percent) recognize actors, artists, or musicians — a category that represents only 17 percent of total Medal recipients to date. The list this year includes actors Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, and Robert DeNiro, and musicians Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross.
This choice might signal that President Obama values cultural contributions more than most presidents and views his legacy as extending beyond the political. Or maybe he just wanted to enjoy a star-studded “last blast” at the White House before leaving office.
Regardless, the inevitable next question is who Donald Trump will decide is worthy of the Medal of Freedom. Will he celebrate the values and achievements that unite Americans? Or will his choice of honorees and accomplishments reflect the anti-establishment tone of his election campaign? Will the ceremonies showcase the president’s humility (not a frequently-mentioned Trump trait) or will they display his fondness for spectacle?
Presidential Medal of Freedom awards combine both tradition and idiosyncrasy, and how Trump approaches the privilege of bestowing these high honors will be among the many uncertainties surrounding his presidency.
Fletcher McClellan is professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. Twitter: @mcclelef. Kyle C. Kopko is assistant dean for academic achievement and engagement, and associate professor of political science, at Elizabethtown College. Twitter: @KyleKopko. Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Twitter: @ProfDevine. Jillian E. Casey is a Juris Doctor candidate at Georgetown University Law Center. Julia L. Ward is a Juris Doctor candidate and Public Interest Law Scholar at Georgetown University Law Center.