Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

The Politics of the Presidential Medal of Freedom: A Fifty-Year Analysis, 1963-2013

Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

The Politics of the Presidential Medal of Freedom: A Fifty-Year Analysis, 1963-2013

Article excerpt

There are many honors and privileges bestowed on the occupant of this house, but few mean as much to me as the chance to award America's highest civilian medal....This is a chance for me-and for the United States of America-to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country (President Barack Obama, Presidential Medal of Freedom Award Ceremony, August 12, 2009).


The Presidential Medal of Freedom (PMOF) is the nation's highest civilian honor. The president of the United States, at his sole discretion, bestows the Medal upon individuals for a variety of meritorious contributions. Because presidents act in an unconstrained manner when recognizing Medal recipients, the PMOF provides a unique opportunity to examine the civic contributions that presidents value most when exercising this symbolic unilateral power. Since the Medal's inception in 1963, U.S. presidents have recognized individuals for their contributions in diverse fields, including athletics, art, business, civil rights, literature, and public service, to name but a few.

PMOF award ceremonies also serve as a forum in which the president can publicly associate himself with a group of successful and talented individuals. Given that PMOF ceremonies generally receive significant media attention, it is possible that presidents could strategically award PMOFs for a variety of reasons, such as shaping the president's historical legacy, increasing the president's approval rating, solidifying support among existing constituency groups, attracting new constituency groups, or signaling preferences to other political actors.

Using an original database of all PMOFs awarded between 1963 and 2013, this study provides the first descriptive and empirical analysis of PMOF award recipients. Among other things, we find that PMOF ceremonies do not increase a president's approval rating. Furthermore, our findings indicate that the overall number of PMOFs awarded annually has increased over time, and that these Medals are often presented to a large group of individuals during a single ceremony, presumably with the goal of garnering media attention. Additionally, we find that Democratic and Republican presidents differ in terms of what achievements they choose to recognize when awarding a PMOF. Partisan differences are also evident when it comes to awarding PMOFs to racial minorities: Democrats recognize these individuals significantly more often than Republicans. However, we find no statistically significant difference in the rate at which Democratic and Republican presidents award the Medal to women.

We begin this study by discussing the history of the PMOF and its predecessor, the Medal of Freedom, and the award's symbolic and political significance as a unilateral exercise of presidential power. After detailing the methods used to construct our original dataset of PMOF recipients and ceremonies from 1963-2013, we then present and evaluate empirical evidence designed to address several key questions about the awarding of PMOFs. Finally, we conclude by discussing the implications of our findings and offer insights regarding the PMOF's significance in contemporary American politics.

Inception of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The PMOF's history begins with its predecessor medal, the Medal of Freedom (MOF). President Harry S. Truman established the MOF on July 6, 1945, with Executive Order 9586. According to the executive order, the MOF sought to recognize:

...any person ...who, on or after December 7, 1941, has performed a meritorious act or service which has aided the United States in the prosecution of a war against an enemy or enemies...(or) has similarly aided any nation engaged with the United States in the prosecution of a war against a common enemy or enemies (Executive Order 9586).

President Truman's executive order limited the MOF to 1) contributions to national security performed outside the continental United States, 2) individuals for which another federal medal was inappropriate, and 3) individuals not serving in the military. …

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