After waiting nearly two years to issue his first Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Trump is picking up the pace.
Last November, the president honored seven recipients, three posthumously — Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The other four were U.S. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican donor and philanthropist Miriam Adelson and NFL Hall-of-Famers Roger Staubach and Alan Page (also a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice).
In May, Trump handed the Presidential Medal of Freedom (PMOF) to golfing great Tiger Woods in a Rose Garden ceremony. Yesterday, he awarded the medal to economist Arthur Laffer, influential proponent of supply-side economics. Next to be honored is basketball legend Jerry West.
What’s the point of conferring Presidential Medals of Freedom?
President John F. Kennedy established the award in 1963, as a way of honoring people who made a significant contribution to American culture, the national interest or world peace. In choosing recipients, presidents can signal the heroes, causes and values with which they want to be associated. Also, presidents can use the medal to reward key supporters and constituency groups.
What’s unites President Trump’s honorees?
What do President Trump’s 10 awards tell us about him and how he differs from his predecessors?
First, Trump likes athletes. So far, half of his selections are professional sports figures. In our research of the history of the award, we found that, before 2018, athletes received only four percent of the total number of medals.
Trump’s fondness for athletic achievement may reflect his zeal for winning, especially in highly competitive settings such as business and politics. Of course, he and his business enterprises are strongly connected to sports, including his golf resorts.
Second, like his predecessors, the president has recognized prominent supporters and members of his political party. Laffer and Scalia are conservative icons, and Hatch was the longest serving Republican senator in U.S. history. Adelson and her husband Sheldon, the casino magnate, donated $113 million to Republican campaigns during the 2018 midterm election cycle.
Third, having a personal connection to Trump doesn’t hurt. Woods, an occasional playing partner of the president, contracted with the Trump Organization to design a golf course for a Trump property in Dubai. Laffer informally advises the president and recently co-authored a book, Trumponomics, praising Trump’s economic policy.
Fourth, compared to other presidents, Trump has issued the lowest number of medals at this stage of the first term since Richard Nixon. Also like Nixon, the president appears to be regularly holding ceremonies for individuals. That runs counter to Ronald Reagan’s example of honoring at least 10 recipients annually in groups of five or more, which set a trend most presidents have followed since. Trump’s pattern of awarding medals sharply contrasts with that of Barack Obama, who conferred more medals than any president, totaling 115 over his two terms.
So far, of the 10 medals Trump has awarded, one has gone to a woman and two to persons of color. That proportion is roughly in line with those awarded by former Republican presidents. Of all those who received medals from Republican presidents, about 85 percent were men and 83 percent were white. By contrast, of the recipients recognized by Democratic presidents, approximately 77 percent were men and 75 percent were white.
Interestingly, Trump has not yet honored a military leader, a type of recipient likely to be selected more often by Republican than Democratic presidents.
How does Trump decide who to recognize?
Like all presidents, Trump is learning about the job while on the job. We do not know why he waited until the 22nd month of his administration to award his first Medals of Freedom, but he appears to understand the award’s significance now.
Trump may be honoring individual medal recipients to get more positive publicity out of frequent ceremonies, as opposed to distributing them all in one or two large gatherings a year. Or his decision-making process may be more idiosyncratic than routine.
Trump is awarding Medals of Freedom much in the way he’s used his power to pardon. Starting in August 2017 when he pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the president has issued 12 pardons or clemency orders. For most of these, Trump bypassed the regular process for determining the worthiness of possible recipients, responding mainly to personal appeals or his political allies’ media campaigns.
To say Trump’s pardons and Medals of Freedom range widely is an understatement. He reached back decades to award a Medal of Freedom to Babe Ruth, and even further to issue a pardon to Jack Johnson, the early twentieth century heavyweight champion.
What do Presidential Medals of Freedom symbolize? That depends on the president
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is intended to symbolize what Americans value most in their leaders and themselves. President Trump may find that awarding these can help him succeed as a national unifier, a role some observers believe he has failed to perform.
For instance, awarding the Medal of Freedom to Tiger Woods may have been controversial, given the athlete’s turbulent personal life and business ties to Trump. But no one could deny Woods’ staggering athletic record and inspirational comeback story from physical breakdown to this year’s Masters Tournament victory.
Examining these medals offers insight about what means the most to presidents personally. Judging from his awards so far, Trump’s idea of American greatness is connected to cultural icons from the baby boomers’ prime years and earlier; athletic accomplishments; and conservative ideas.
Will Trump award more medals as conflicts with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives intensify? Possibly. Our research shows that more Medal of Freedom ceremonies have taken place during periods of divided government, possibly because presidents sought positive media coverage during times of partisan conflict.
But Richard Nixon held three Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies between March and July 1974, as the Watergate impeachment investigation unfolded. It didn’t make much difference for him.
E. Fletcher McClellan (@mcclelef) is professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.
Kyle C. Kopko (@KyleKopko) is associate dean of institutional effectiveness, research, and planning and associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.
Christopher J. Devine (@ProfDevine) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.