President Barack Obama on Thursday awarded Vice President Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during a surprise event at the White House paying tribute to him.
Moving Biden to tears, Obama hailed Biden as “the best vice president America has ever had” and “a lion of American history.” When concluding his remarks, he surprised Biden by announcing the honor, a medal of freedom with distinction, a special version of the medal that has only been awarded to three other people: Pope John Paul II, former President Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Obama said.
Biden, already teary during the tribute, began crying when the award was announced.
“I had no inkling,” Biden said, taking the podium after Obama awarded him the medal.
Obama honored Biden’s lifetime of public service, including his decades in the Senate and eight years as vice president, from championing the Violence Against Women Act, his diplomacy, his “cancer moonshot,” and his “It’s On Us” campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses.
“That’s a pretty remarkable legacy, an amazing career in public service. It is, as Joe once said, a big deal,” Obama said, pausing between the “big” and the “deal.”
Obama’s tribute built on remarks he made during his Tuesday farewell address, when he called Biden his “brother.”
“To Joe Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton who became Delaware’s favorite son: You were the first choice I made as a nominee, and the best,” Obama said in Chicago on Tuesday. “Not just because you have been a great vice president, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother.”
Both men have been outspoken about the deep friendship they have forged over their eight years in the White House, and Thursday’s event was no different, with both speaking in personal terms about each other and their families.
“Behind the scenes, Joe’s candid, honest counsel has made me a better president and a better commander in chief,” Obama said. “From the Situation Room, to our weekly lunches, to our huddles after everybody else has cleared out of the room, he has been unafraid to give it to me straight, even if we disagree. In fact, especially when we disagree. And all of this makes him, I believe, the finest vice president we have ever seen.”
Biden called Obama “a remarkable man.”
“I tell everybody, and I have told them from the beginning, and I am not saying this to reciprocate: I have never known a president, and few people I have ever met in my whole life ― I can count on less than one hand ― who have had the integrity and the decency and the sense of other people’s needs like you do,” Biden said to Obama.
“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 I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country,” he added later. “Remarkable things.”
Of the honor, Biden said: “I don’t deserve this. But I know it came from the president’s heart. There is a Talmudic saying that says, what comes from the heart enters the heart. Mr. President, you have creeped into our heart, you and your whole family, including Mom, and you occupy it.”
Barack Obama paid what’s likely to be his last visit to Capitol Hill as president on Wednesday and beseeched congressional Democrats to fight to protect the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to unravel it.
With President-elect Donald Trump set to assume office in little more than two weeks, the GOP-led Congress is already moving forward with Republicans’ longstanding desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Obama sought to rally his party to do whatever it can to thwart them, despite the terrible odds.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Vice President-elect Mike Pence gathered with Republican lawmakers to press the opposite case.
“Despite the negativity, you have a big chunk of the country that wants this thing to succeed,” Obama said, according to a person who attended the meeting with House and Senate Democrats. “That the country is clamoring to undo this thing is simply untrue.”
Democratic leaders emerged from that session proclaiming they’re unified in their opposition to repeal, unified in their zeal to resist and unified in their refusal to help Republicans devise new health care reforms until they see the GOP’s opening bid at an Obamacare “replacement” ― something that Republicans have failed to produce during the eight years since the Affordable Care Act debate began.
“They want to repeal it and then try to hang it on us. Not going to happen. It’s their responsibility, plain and simple,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference following the meeting with the president.
“They’re going to own it,” Schumer said. “All the problems in the health care system are going to be on their back.”
“If you are repealing, show us what you’ll replace it with first, and then we’ll look at what you have and see what we can do. They’re repealing it. We’re not. It’s their obligation to come up with replace first. And I think we have unanimity within our Democratic caucus on that position,” he said. “If we put forward a plan first, they’d reject it.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Obama encouraged Democrats to work with Republicans on health care ― but only if the GOP’s plan would achieve levels of insurance coverage similar to what the Affordable Care Act provides, which none of the GOP proposals so far has ever aimed to do. “If they have in their replace something that works and gets results, then we shouldn’t be opposed to that,” she said Obama advised them.
The president addressed House and Senate Democrats in the same auditorium where, almost exactly seven years ago, he exhorted them to pass sweeping health care reform legislation aimed at covering the uninsured, reducing health costs and improving the quality of medical care.
Since then, Democrats have lost control of Congress and the White House, and now face the likelihood that Republicans will follow through on their promise to undo Obamacare.
In the meantime, the health care law has reduced the rate of uninsured Americans to the lowest ever recorded and provided health care coverage to 20 million people who previously lacked it. And there are even promising signs that the law’s health insurance exchanges, beset by large premium increases and diminished choices this year, may be righting themselves.
Democratic leaders in Congress have few tools available to prevent the GOP from passing legislation dismantling the Affordable Care Act in the coming weeks. They can try to slow down the Senate debate long enough to make their case to the American people, again, that the upsides of Obamacare outweigh the downsides, that the millions who’ve been helped by the law shouldn’t see their benefits stripped away, and that the Republican plan to repeal the law now but not enact a new set of reforms for up to four years is dangerous.
“The president asked us, ‘Are you ready? Do you have a fight in you?’ He didn’t need to ask us that question,” Pelosi said.
Democrats do have some advantages in this battle. Perhaps chief among them is the accumulating evidence of discord among congressional Republicans.
“Republicans are stuck. For years, they’ve promised every conservative group in America that they’ll repeal the ACA ‘root and branch.’ Until today, they could make those extreme promises without suffering any consequences because they knew Democrats or President Obama would ultimately block any rollbacks in ACA,” Schumer said.
Scorn for Obamacare has been GOP orthodoxy for years, and the party’s House and Senate leaders are eager to advance its repeal swiftly. But voices ranging from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, to the conservative House Freedom Caucus are openly questioning the leadership’s strategy of formally repealing major elements of the law early this year, but actually keeping them in place for up to four years while the party comes up with the consensus on health care that has previously eluded it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released a framework for GOP health care legislation last year, but he has never put it into legislative form. The House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, another group of conservative representatives, have competing plans.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has co-sponsored health care reform bills in previous years, but they lacked the imprimatur of Senate Republican leaders.
Then there’s Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s choice to be secretary of health and human services, who has his own plan to go along with the president-elect’s shifting positions on health care.
As Obama noted to lawmakers Wednesday, the American public isn’t enthusiastic about repealing the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact that more people disapprove of the law than approve of it. A Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted after the election found that nearly half of Americans want to keep Obamacare as-is or even expand it, compared to about one-quarter who want it fully repealed.
In addition, snatching away health care coverage from as many as 30 million people risks a public backlash against Republicans, especially since large numbers of Americans in states that Trump won are covered by Obamacare programs. Democrats plan to stage events around the country on Jan. 15 to highlight the law’s benefits and the risks of taking them away.
“There are real lives at stake in this thing,” Obama said during the meeting, according to the attendee.
Trump and other Republican leaders have been promising that their plans would somehow not hurt Americans, but the GOP is unwilling to spend the money required to provide benefits to this many people.
“This is a mean-spirited strategy to repeal Obamacare without a replacement,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters immediately after the meeting with Obama.
Schumer and other Democrats also pointed to alarms raised by hospitals, the American Medical Association and others in the health care sector that the “repeal and delay” plan would wreak havoc on a system that’s still adapting to the Affordable Care Act overhaul.
“Republicans would create chaos in the health care system because they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Schumer said. “They have no idea what to put in place of the Affordable Care Act.”
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.