With a new administration in Washington, much is changing. One thing that will not change is the forthcoming numerous photos and video clips of individuals having a medal draped around their neck by President Biden.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony has been consistently embraced by our Chief Executive. Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, presidents love the photo op of awarding the medal and recipients enjoy the attention upon receiving it. It is one of few constants in a constantly changing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded by the president, “for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The defining criteria are sufficiently vague to allow sitting presidents to award the medal to basically whoever they desire, and from just about any walk of life.
In many ways, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the ultimate lifetime achievement award for individuals lucky enough to elicit favor of the White House. It’s obviously a big deal for the recipient, and prior recipients (excluding a few in hindsight) were deserving.
But it also serves as an indicator of what and who the elite political class value most. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to the same walks of life, careers, and sectors that government is designed to fund, nurture, and grow. What the government awards correlates to what the government thinks is most important in society.
Which got me thinking. What do the award data tell us about what our elite leadership thinks is most important and less important in society?
The Analysis and the Data
The successive terms of Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump provide nearly thirty years of data. Over these four presidential administrations, over 300 Presidential Medals of Freedom were awarded. That’s a decent sized data set to perform a quick analysis.
To assess the data, recipients were classified into eight categories, using general career/sector descriptions. The eight are:
- Charities, foundations, and advocacy
- Politics, government, and civil service
- Arts, entertainment, and media
- Science, technology, and engineering (STEM)
For some recipients, assigning one of the eight categories was a judgement call. For example, 2018 medal recipient Alan Page enjoyed accomplishments of note in both government and sports. For individuals straddling more than one of the eight categories, they were assigned to the category they were most known for. Thus, Alan Page is included in the sports category.
When you mine the data set of these medal recipients, what conclusions stand out?
Conclusion #1: Presidents Enjoy Awarding Medals
Not a shocker. We know politicians love attention and awarding medals is a great opportunity to be seen in a positive light. Thus, it comes as no surprise presidents hand out these medals like candy. Clinton, Bush, and Obama all hit the one hundred medal mark during their tenures, with Obama being the most prolific awarder, clocking in at a rate of nearly 15 medals per year in office.
Interestingly, Trump had the lowest medal award rate per year in office, at six. That’s half of his three predecessor’s average rate of 12 per year in office. Was it because Trump didn’t place as much importance on the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was more selective in his criteria when choosing awardees, or had a smaller pool of candidates due to the Resist Movement? Hard to say, but Trump stands as an outlier on medal frequency versus his predecessors.
Conclusion #2: Government Picks the Most Winners From…Government
Perhaps a shocker to some, but it should not come as a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to how government tends to operate in an insulated ecosystem separate from the citizenry it is supposed to serve. For all four presidents save Trump, the biggest grouping of awardees is from the combined categories of “charities, foundations, and advocacy” and “politics, government, and civil service.”
For Clinton’s class this grouping comprised over 75% of the total, while for Bush’s class it tallied nearly two-thirds of the total awardees. The representation tailed off a bit under Obama and Trump, coming in at 43% and 29%, respectively. Across all four presidents cumulatively, half of the 300+ awardees hailed from government, politics, or advocacy closely tied to both.
Although I am sure these 150 awardees are deserving of the award (maybe a few exceptions), it shows that government has its greatest affinity for itself.
Conclusion #3: Hollywood, Media, and Sports Are Medal Magnets
Presidents are increasingly drawn to the entertainment complex when doling out Presidential Medals of Freedom, like moths to a flame. Trump loved the jocks: he awarded nearly 60% of his medals to individuals in sports. Obama loved the arts: he tied almost a third of his medals to the necks of singers, writers, and actors.
Bush was slightly less weighted to sports and entertainment than Obama and Trump, but still awarded 38% of his medals to this combined group. Surprisingly, Clinton was the least impressed with athletes and cultural celebrities, having awarded a relatively paltry 5% to the group.
Clinton aside, the data show our leaders place enormous weight on those who provide entertainment to society. If you can consistently sink three-pointers or stream a hit song, the trend indicates you may be in line for a Presidential Medal of Freedom someday.
Conclusion #4: What Matters Most is Recognized Least
The United States is a capitalistic society based on a foundation of free enterprise and individual rights. Americans have a 200+ year legacy of technological innovation that continually raises quality of life for all.
This is a country of “doers” who disrupt the status quo and create wealth. Someone should remind Washington, D.C. of this.
Nearly thirty years of four presidents handing out Presidential Medals of Freedom shows that our political elite care little for business and STEM. The share of awardees hailing from business and technical fields is consistently embarrassing.
Bush (at 15% of awardees) and Obama (at 14%) were slightly less embarrassing than Clinton (at 8% of awardees) and Trump (at 4%), but all four are saying the same thing: those who achieve and create value are not placed on the same pedestal as those who entertain or live in and around government.
A Stark Contrast Between Two Rivals
Almost thirty years of data from the Presidential Medal of Freedom paints a clear picture. Our leaders favor the image (sports and entertainment) and the familiar (government and advocacy groups closely tied to it) over the substance of those who create value in business and technical fields.
We have the Presidential Medal of Freedom. China has its Thousand Talents Program.
The Biden administration is mulling over who the next celebrity or athlete will be to join the ranks of prior awardees Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro, and Tiger Woods. Meanwhile the Chinese are figuring out which advanced technology it needs to procure from us through its program funding and rewards.
Which country is playing the long game and which is fixated on shiny distractions?
We are running out of time to adjust course as to what matters in American society.
A good start is to improve the optics of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—shifting its weighting of awardees to those who create, enable, and serve the vital pillars of free enterprise, technological advancement, value creation, and geopolitical competitive advantage.
The more medals we tie around those types of necks, the better off the world will be.