The demographic differences between Presidents Obama and George W. Bush’s honorees, for example, are quite telling. African Americans represented roughly the same portion of each man’s designations—18 percent of Obama’s, compared to 17 percent for Bush —but women have made up 36 percent of the medal’s recipients under the current president versus 15 percent during Bush’s time in office.
In a similar vein, Obama has awarded the honor to a higher proportion of Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans and gay and lesbian Americans than W did.
Obama has recognized more than five times as many activists as Bush, but Bush gave the medal to three times as many academics and nearly five times as many media figures. In some ways, the two presidents have singled out similar professions: they have recognized roughly the same numbers of government and political officials, entertainers, athletes, scientists and health experts.
And while each president has recognized Americans from the opposite political parties, they still tended to reward different types of people within the same profession. Obama gave the medal to The Washington Post’s executive editor Ben Bradlee in 2013, a year before his death, while Bush awarded it to New York Times columnist William Safire in 2006, three years before Safire died.
Anita McBride, who served as First Lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, noted that Bush decided to recognize “Safire who wasn’t very nice to his dad,” because the idea of the medal was “to be nonpartisan, and reflective [of] the whole country.”
There is one way in which the current president differs from all those who have proceeded him: as of Tuesday he will have awarded a total of 97 medals, compared to Bush’s 81 and Bill Clinton’s 88. And Obama, it should be noted, still has one more year to go.
In an interview Monday, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett acknowledged that Obama’s lists are longer than most other presidents, but the administration makes no apologies for that.
“There’s people he’s had on his mind since he took office,” she explained. “He wants to make sure he gives them this honor before he leaves office.”