In a final celebration of their partnership in office, Barack Obama paid an emotional tribute to his vice president, which he concluded with bestowing upon a surprised Joe Biden the highest American civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“For your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country, and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations,” the outgoing US president said as he shocked Biden with the announcement.
The version of the medal that Biden received was one “with distinction,” an honor awarded to only three people by Obama’s three predecessors: Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Colin Powell, Obama said.
Called Biden his “brother,” and “the best vice president America has ever had,” Obama said that “behind the scenes, Joe’s candid, honest counsel has made me a better president.”
Obama spoke of Biden’s legacy as vice president, including his work on cancer research and his efforts against campus sexual abuse, and spoke warmly of Biden’s wife, Jill, who “reminds us that although we are in a serious business we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously,” offering as an example an anecdote about her hiding in an overhead compartment of Air Force Two to scare the senior staff.
“To see them together is to see what real love looks like. It’s an all-American love story.”
In a long, anecdote-filled speech of his own, a humble Biden barely spoke of himself, instead focusing on the people he leaned on—his family, staff, and the president himself. He said he had “no inkling” about the Medal of Freedom honor.
“With good reason, there is no power in the vice presidency. There is no inherent power, nor should there be,” he said, as he gave credit to Obama for allowing Biden to help him govern. “Every single thing that you’ve asked me to do, you’ve trusted me to do, and that’s a remarkable thing.”
He said that he had seen Obama under intense pressure, and that most every major crisis their administration faced was a novel one, a first. “This is a remarkable man,” Biden said of Obama, “and I just hope that the asterisk in history that is attached to my name when they talk about this presidency is that I can say that I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country.”
Just as Obama emphasized how close their families had become, Biden also spoke about their bond.
This honor is not only way beyond what I deserve but its a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this, but I know it came from the president’s heart…
It’s an amazing thing that happened. I knew how smart you were, I knew how honorable you were how decent you were… and I knew what you were capable of but I never fully fully expected you would occupy the Bidens’ heart… all of us.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Obama said only three people in history received the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction.