Obama awards Biden the Medal of Freedom

(Jim Watson, AFP)
(Jim Watson, AFP)

Washignton - At the dusk of both of their political careers, surrounded by teary friends and family, President Barack Obama on Thursday bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Joe Biden, the man he called "the finest vice president we have ever seen."

The vice president winced in shock as Obama announced he was conferring the nation's highest civil honour on his right-hand-man for eight years. Biden turned away from the cameras, wiped away some tears, then stood stoically as Obama draped the blue-and-white ribbon around his neck.

"I just hope that the asterisk in history that is attached to my name when they talk about this presidency is that I can say I was part of the journey of a remarkable man who did remarkable things for this country," Biden said.

There were standing ovations - several of them - at what had been billed as a modest farewell ceremony for Biden but evolved into a surprise bestowal of the Medal of Freedom, the last time Obama will present the honour.

"I had no idea," Biden said of the award, insisting he didn't deserve it.

It was the only time Obama has presented the medal "with distinction," also awarded only once by each of the previous three presidents.

One week out from the Obama administration's end, a deep sense of nostalgia set in at the White House as longtime staffers pack up their offices, send out their last emails and bid farewell to the president they've served.

On Tuesday, Obama returned home to Chicago to deliver his valedictory address, and next week he'll depart Washington as ex-president just after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in.

A bond beyond the White House

Obama, joined Thursday by his wife and daughters, was effusive in his praise for the man who ran against him in 2008, then agreed to be his running mate. He said Biden had made him a better president, calling him "a lion of American history."

"To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretence, service without self-regard and to live life fully," Obama said.

The famously plainspoken Biden has long said he only agreed to the job after Obama agreed he would be the last person in the room before major decisions were made.

Over two terms, they developed a bond that both men said transcended the office, with their wives, children and Biden's grandchildren becoming close friends.

They disagreed, too, on occasion, including when Biden advocated against the high-stakes raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Biden's tendency to veer off-script caused occasional headaches for the White House, such as when he unexpectedly announced support for gay marriage in advance of the 2012 re-election, forcing Obama to do the same soon after.

Yet as they gathered for a final goodbye, none of that seemed on either man's mind.

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