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Biden's picks for the Presidential Medal of Freedom largely reflect his own politics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden today gave 17 Americans the highest honor the government can present to a civilian - the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, the award has become increasingly political in recent years. And today's recipients reflect Biden's politics.

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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Biden was beaming as he draped medals around the necks of the honorees. He's taken a lot of hits lately, but this collection of Americans was made up of some of his favorite things. You had the Catholic social justice movement in Sister Simone Campbell...

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Nuns never forget a thing.

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DETROW: ...Unions with the posthumous honoring of the late AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka...

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BIDEN: Richard Trumka was the American worker.

DETROW: ...And in retired Senator Alan Simpson and in the late John McCain, Republicans Biden could reach across the aisle and work with.

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BIDEN: We used to argue like hell on the Senate floor, but then we'd go down and have lunch together afterwards, as you remember.

DETROW: There's always been some politics involved in these medals. The president hands them out, after all. Former President Donald Trump made it overtly political, giving the medal to conservative talk radio giant and early Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh in the middle of his last State of the Union, as one example. Biden aimed for a more traditional approach. But looking across the stage, you saw the embodiment of the pluralistic, multicultural, more progressive America that Biden believes in. Take the athletes he honored. Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe are two of the greatest in Olympic history. Biles has won seven Olympic medals in gymnastics.

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BIDEN: Everyone stops everything every time she was on camera.

DETROW: In recent years, the two also became main characters in political culture wars - Biles for taking herself out of competition during last year's Olympics due to mental health concerns and soccer star Rapinoe for her outspoken stance on pay equity and other political issues. Trump and other conservatives have relentlessly attacked them. Today Biden honored them.

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BIDEN: Beyond the World Cup titles and Olympic medals, Megan is a champion for essential American truth that everyone - everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone.

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DETROW: Looking around the room at the end of the ceremony, Biden summed it up. This, he said, is America. At least in this divided and hyperpartisan moment, it's the America Biden believes in and wants to see. Scott Detrow, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.