Any day now, the White House will announce the 2011 winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. What will be interesting to see is whether President Obama will again give many of the awards to his supporters and friends.
More than half of the 15 people awarded the 2010 Medal of Freedom, which was presented at an East Room event February 15 of this year, have either political or personal connections to Obama. Some played critical roles in getting him elected president.
Most of these people arguably deserved the award. But vast numbers of individuals across the country also deserve it, and most of them are not connected to Obama.
Here’s how eight of the fifteen recipients are related to Obama.
As president in 2008 of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney played one of the most important roles of any single citizen in sweeping Obama into the White House. Sweeney’s union spent tens of millions of dollar on grass roots mobilization and other efforts to secure the Oval Office for Obama.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), also was a pivotal player in getting Obama elected, helping him grab the Democratic nomination.
Lewis initially backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but switched to Obama in late February 2008 after it became clear black voters were supporting Obama. As the elder statesman of the civil rights movement, Lewis’s move was a major coup for the Obama campaign, which was still far from wrapping up the nomination.
Warren Buffett was an adviser to Obama’s campaign, and his support gave the liberal Democrat badly needed credibility with business types. Buffett continues to advise Obama on the economy and has in the months since receiving his award role helped Obama promote his economic initiatives.
Buffett headlined Obama fundraisers this year on September 30 in New York City and on October 27 in Chicago. Each was particularly useful to Obama because it didn’t require a moment of his time, featuring instead Buffett as a stand-in attraction for the president. Ticket prices ranged up to $35,800 a head.
Recipient Jean Kennedy Smith is of course the brother of the late Edward Kennedy, whose decision to back Obama over Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries was instrumental in his seizing the nomination from her. Mrs. Smith herself endorsed Obama for the presidency in April 2008, before the nominations was his.
Basketball great Bill Russell is an Obama supporter who appeared at a fundraiser in Seattle for Obama seven months after receiving his award.
Author Maya Angelou is an ardent Obama backer who helped promote his candidacy, introducing Michelle Obama at a 2008 general election campaign event.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma had been appointed by Obama to be a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities before receiving his medal and also played at Obama’s inauguration.
The possible political ties of John H. Adams to President Obama are less clear but worth taking a look at. Adams was a co-founder and until 2006 the president of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group generally aligned with Democrats.
But is what is less well known is that Adams is on the boards of the Center for American Progress, the politically minded Democratic think tank and advocacy organization, and The League of Conservation Voters.
The League of Conservation Voters of course endorsed Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential contest. But it also played a critical role – in the League’s own estimation – in the 2004 Illinois Democratic Senate primary in which Obama leapfrogged several opponents to become the Democratic nominee, launching his career on the national stage and leading to his election as Senator.
I have not found any specific evidence, though, that Adams himself played a role in the 2004 effort for Obama.
At least one of the recipients, however, can be said quite clearly not to be an Obama ally. Obama quite properly gave one of the 2010 awards to George H.W. Bush.