What is the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Why VP Joe Biden was Awarded One 'With Distinction'

In a surprise move on Thursday, President Barack Obama bestowed upon Vice President Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom "With Distinction" -- the highest civilian honor of the United States.

VP Joe Biden receives Presidential Medal of Honor
U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Vice President Joe Biden in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017. |

Joe Biden's reaction, one of genuine surprise followed by an immediate welling up, showed just how much the honor meant to him. But what is the Presidential Medal of Freedom and why did Biden receive one?

The Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors, says the official White House page.

A better understanding of the medal's significance is possible by looking at some of its recipients; those conferred with the honor in 2016 included Robert DeNiro, Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks, Bill and Melinda Gates, Margaret H. Hamilton and Diana Ross, among the total of 21 recipients.

In President Obama's words, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is "a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better."

Why Joe Biden Received the Medal

"For your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations," Obama said during the ceremony at the White House. "For my final time as President, I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom."

President Obama went on to say that he was paying tribute not only to his long-time friend and political aide, but also to "somebody who has devoted his entire professional life to service to this country."

In his speech, Obama praised Biden's family and called Biden his "brother" and the "best vice president America's ever had." He ended the speech with a joking statement that "this also gives the Internet one last chance to talk about our bromance."

A surprised and emotional Biden, who turned around to wipe his tears upon hearing the announcement, accepted the medal but said that he did not deserve it.

"This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it's a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit," Biden said. "I don't deserve this but I know it came from the President's heart."

Biden also added that he was grateful for being a "part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things".

The Significance of "With Distinction"

While the Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to numerous persons each year, for the medal to be conferred "with distinction" is a rare honor. Joe Biden is only the fourth person in history to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom "With Distinction" with the previous three recipients being Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and General Colin Powell.

Joe Biden thought he was coming in to the room to toast senior staff with the first lady and his wife, Jill Biden, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama. As far as surprises go, this might be one of the best ones seen in the White House ever.

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