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Obama surprises 'brother' Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama surprises 'brother' Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Vice President Joe Biden wipes away tears after President Obama surprised him Thursday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press)

After two presidential campaigns together, countless one-on-one meetings and the forging of a bromance that inspired countless Internet memes, President Obama had an honor in store Thursday for Vice President Joe Biden: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"This is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary career in public service," Obama said in a glowing tribute during a surprise ceremony in the White House's State Dining Room.

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Obama awarded Biden the nation's highest civilian honor with distinction, an added level of veneration offered for the first time by Obama and only once by each of the last three presidents, to Pope John Paul II, former President Reagan and retired Gen. Colin Powell. Obama also added a more personal — and to Biden, probably more meaningful — honorific, referring to Biden as his "brother."

"It was 8½ years ago that I chose Joe to be my vice president. There has not been a single moment since that time that I have doubted the wisdom of that decision," Obama said. "It was the best possible choice, not just for me but for the American people."

Initially, Biden had doubts, thinking he could do more to advance Obama's agenda as a senior member of the Senate. After the two met to discuss the vice presidency, one of Biden's aides remarked that it seemed as if Biden had been trying to persuade Obama not to pick him.

"Well, it's true," Biden said.

On Thursday, before an audience of current and former aides and administration officials, Biden shared the moment that his doubts were put to rest: when he saw his young grandchildren having a sleepover with Obama's daughters at the hotel where the families stayed at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

In a recent interview in his West Wing office, Biden recalled some of the conditions he placed on his acceptance: "I'm not wearing any funny hats, and two, I'm not changing my brand."

He also recalled an early argument the two had after Biden, not for the first time, seemed to stray publicly from the campaign's message. But that spat, and others that would follow, were the kind that brothers would have, he said.

"The deal we made was, we'd be completely straight with one another," Biden said. From the beginning, he wanted to be the last person in the room anytime Obama was facing a tough decision to make his own case but would accept the outcome no matter what. Obama agreed to the deal.

"He's kept every ounce of it," Biden said.

"Joe's candid, honest counsel has made me a better president and a better commander in chief," Obama said Thursday. "He's been unafraid to give it to me straight, even if we disagreed. In fact, especially when we disagreed. And all of this makes him, I believe, the finest vice president we have ever seen. And I also think he has been a lion of American history."

Biden, often overcome by emotion during the ceremony, was equally effusive. No president, he said, has had "as many novel crises land on his desk" as Obama, but under intense pressure, Obama proved to be "a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country."

"I knew how smart you were, I knew how honorable you were, I knew how decent you were from the couple years we worked in the Senate, and I knew what you were capable of," the vice president said. "But I never fully expected that you'd occupy the Bidens' heart."

The tribute, two days after Obama's formal farewell address to the nation, added to the air of sentimentality hovering over the White House as the Obama administration readies its exit. Obama, hailing Biden's "voice of reason and optimism and love for people," added in an allusion to the uncertain future under President-elect Donald Trump: "We're going to need that spirit and that vision as we continue to try to make our world safer."

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Twitter: @mikememoli

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