Two people who served as high-profile campaign surrogates for President Barack Obama – and who have made big news for recent comments regarding race and Obamacare – received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Wednesday.
Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul whose support of Obama was key during the 2008 campaign, was one of recipients of the Medal of Freedom. Another recipient of the nation's highest civilian honor was former President Bill Clinton, only the second U.S. president impeached by the House of Representatives, who campaigned heavily for Obama in the 2012 reelection campaign. Clinton was praised both for his presidency and the humanitarian efforts of his post-presidency.
The ceremony came just days after Winfrey said in an interview with the BBC that Obama has been the victim of racism as commander in chief. She said the United States was “born and bred and marinated” in racism, but that it would eventually die out.
“Early on in Oprah Winfrey's career, her bosses told her she should change her name to Sussie,” Obama said, drawing laughter. “I have to pause here to say, I got the same advice. They didn't say I should be named Sussie, but they did say I should change my name. People can relate to Sussie. That's what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people can relate to Oprah just fine. In more than 4,500 episodes of her show, her message was always, you can, you can be, you can do, you can grow.”
Winfrey campaigned for Obama leading up to the 2008 Iowa caucus, helping him to defeat frontrunner Hillary Clinton. However, there has reportedly been a rift between the two since Obama took office.
“Even with 40 Emmys, the distinction of being the first black female billionaire, her greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in our selves,” Obama said. “Michelle and I count ourselves among her most devoted fans.”
Last month news reports surfaced of problems between Oprah and the Obama administration, when Winfrey declined a White House request to help promote Obamacare.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose support of Obama in 2012 was considered instrumental in Obama's tough re-election victory, will also receive the medal.
Clinton made news this month after he said Obama should honor his oft-repeated pledge that Americans can keep their insurance plans under Obamacare, amid news that millions of people have received cancellation notices.
“I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got," Clinton said.
Not surprisingly, Obama didn't mention these comments.
“As president, he proved that with the right choices, you can grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, shrink our deficits, still invest in our families, our health, our schools, our science, technology,” Obama said. “In other words, we can go farther when we look out for each other. As we've all seen, as a president he was just getting started. He doesn't stop. He's helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, The Clinton Global Initiative has helped to save the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people.”
This was the 50th year the medals have been awarded, Obama said at the ceremony. Other winners this year included feminist icon Gloria Steinham; former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who led the newspaper's Watergate coverage, former Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, and posthumously to former Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and first woman in space Sally Ride.