Obama Hands Out Medals of Freedom to Major Democratic Donors, Supporters

Honorees include host of celebrities who have supported outgoing president and his allies

Barack Obama
November 21, 2016

Barack Obama will deliver his final round of Presidential Medals of Freedom this week to a group largely comprised of Democratic donors and individuals who have supported him politically.

The White House on Wednesday unveiled the 2016 list of honorees, who will on Tuesday receive the nation's highest civilian award for making "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States."

Eleven of the honorees have made contributions to Democratic committees or campaigns, including some that directly supported Obama, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Washington Free Beacon. Twelve of the individuals have publicly backed Obama or his policies.

A handful of the individuals are Hollywood celebrities who have used their stature to advocate for Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Obama underlined the significance of the award on Wednesday, characterizing the winners as individuals who have "helped push America forward."

"The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation's highest civilian honor–it's a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better," Obama said in a statement. "From scientists, philanthropists, and public servants to activists, athletes, and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way."

The list includes talk show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic committees and campaigns over the years. For example, DeGeneres contributed $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012 and $100,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund this year.

DeGeneres, who endorsed Clinton in an interview with the former secretary of state on her show, also contributed the maximum $2,700 to Clinton's primary campaign against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.). DeGeneres vocally praised Obama for coming out in favor of same-sex marriage ahead of his reelection in 2012.

Actor Robert De Niro, a supporter of both Obama and Clinton, will also receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. De Niro has given thousands of dollars to the Democratic National Committee and contributed $10,000 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012 and $2,500 to Obama's general election campaign the same year.

Another celebrity who will receive the honor is Tom Hanks, who endorsed Obama during his first campaign for president in 2008. Hanks donated $2,300 and $2,500 to Obama's 2008 and 2012 election campaigns, respectively, and has given thousands to the DNC and other Democrats, such as newly-elected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).

Hanks also backed Clinton in her most recent presidential bid, contributing the maximum $2,700 to her primary campaign.

Famed retired basketball player Michael Jordan will also receive a medal. While Jordan made headlines two years ago for calling Obama a "hack" golfer during an interview, the former pro basketball star has been a supporter of the president. Jordan hosted a $3 million fundraiser for Obama during his reelection bid that collected $20,000 per guest.

Obama will hand a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lorne Michaels, famous for creating and producing Saturday Night Live. Michaels has contributed more than $81,000 to political committees and campaigns, the wide majority of which support Democratic causes. Michaels sent $4,600 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2008.

The producer also donated to Sen. John McCain's (R., Ariz.) presidential primary campaign in 2008 and Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign.

At least one fierce critic of Trump will be honored on Tuesday: singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, who described Trump as a "moron" and a "toxic narcissist" during the 2016 campaign season. Springsteen endorsed Obama in 2008 and rallied for Hillary Clinton alongside Jon Bon Jovi on the evening before Election Day.

Springsteen has donated thousands to committees supporting Democrats, including outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Russ Feingold, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) this election cycle.

The ceremony will also honor actor, director, producer, and outspoken environmentalist Robert Redford, who endorsed Obama in 2012 and met informally with the president at the White House in May. In August, Redford fundraised for Feingold, of whom the film star has been a longtime supporter.

The entertainers' careers, as well as those of the non-Hollywood recipients, were outlined by the White House in its announcement of the awards.

The list also includes prominent individuals in the fields of business and the arts. Business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates along with his wife, Melinda, will receive medals, after having together donated thousands to Obama and tens of thousands to Democratic groups such as the DNC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The couple has given to both Democratic and Republican committees over the years, though the contributions favor Democrats.

Bill donated $17,900 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012, while his wife also gifted $35,800 to the joint fundraising committee. Melinda Gates contributed $5,000 to Obama's 2012 primary and general election campaigns.

The two also each gave $50,000 to Obama's inauguration in 2009. Obama and Bill Gates partnered on a multi-billion-dollar clean energy initiative, a project that was announced in timing with the Paris climate talks one year ago.

In the announcement Wednesday, the White House singled out the Gates family for their charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided over $36 billion in grants to improve the lives of people in the United States and developing countries. The charity is also a major supporter of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, giving more than $25 million to the cause.

Obama will also recognize architect Frank Gehry, the designer behind the controversial Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial who has given well over $250,000 to Democratic committees and campaigns since 1999. Gehry is a financial supporter of campaigns supporting Obama, to whom he donated $4,600 in 2008, and Hillary Clinton. Gehry sent nearly $80,000 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012 and more than $60,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund this year.

Artist and designer Maya Lin, who has donated tens of thousands to Democratic committees and campaigns, including those of Obama and Clinton, was also named by the White House as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Newt Minow, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who hired Obama as a summer associate at his law firm in the 1980s, will also be honored. Minow is a supporter of Obama and urged him to run for president, according to a 2008 Vanity Fair interview.

Minow has contributed nearly $18,000 to both Democratic and Republican political campaigns and committees, though the contributions have leaned Democrat. He donated $7,500 to committees supporting Obama in the early 2000s.

Also among the honorees are NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an Obama supporter; physicist Richard Garwin, who was among several scientists who praised the Iran nuclear deal in a letter to Obama last August; Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padron, a proponent of Obama's free college plan; and actress and Hillary Clinton supporter Cicely Tyson.

Not all those to be honored Tuesday are Obama supporters or major donors to Democratic causes. Mathematician and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, singer Diana Ross, U.S. Navy Real Admiral Grace Hopper, and Blackfeet tribal leader Elouise Cobell will all be honored, the latter two posthumously, without having made substantial political contributions or stumped for Democrats.

 The only clear Republican of the group is baseball broadcaster Vin Scully, who spurred a flurry of media coverage when he criticized socialism during a live broadcast in June. Though his political contributions pale in comparison to some others on the list, Scully donated $2,300 to McCain's presidential campaign in 2008 and $1,500 to retired House Speaker John Boehner's congressional campaign over 2010 and 2o11. Scully also wrote a check for $2,500 to the Romney Victory Fund in 2012.

The White House did not respond to a request for information about what the president took into account when selecting the latest round of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.

Obama will award the last round of medals two days before Thanksgiving and two months before he will leave the White House as the Trump administration takes over.