WASHINGTON — Every president has his rough-and-tumble or mundane days, but also some that float above the norm and compel him to take stock of society's changes.
Wednesday was one of those days for President Barack Obama.
America's first black president took a breather from the health care fight to honor the first Hispanic to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.
In an eloquent midmorning tribute to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Obama said the rise of a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, raised by a widowed single mother struggling to make ends meet, is "one of those only-in-America stories."
Her Senate confirmation "is not just about her,'' he said. ''It's about every child who will grow up thinking to him or herself, 'If Sonia Sotomayor can make it, then maybe I can, too.' "
He said that the story also serves to inspire parents to believe that "if I work hard enough, maybe my kids can have more."
Later, in the afternoon, Obama honored his 16 picks for this year's Medal of Freedom.
"There are many honors and privileges bestowed on the occupants of this house," the president said. "But few mean as much to me as the chance to award America's highest civilian medal to the recipients that are here today."
The honorees included actor Sidney Poitier; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African opponent of apartheid; American civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery; breast cancer activist Nancy G. Brinker; women's tennis pioneer Billie Jean King; South Florida physician and homeless advocate Pedro Jose Greer Jr.; American Indian war veteran and historian Joe Medicine Crow; Broadway star Chita Rivera; Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president, for her advocacy of women's and human rights; paralyzed British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking; cancer researcher Janet Davison Rowley; economist Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh; and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Honored posthumously were gay activist Harvey Milk and Jack Kemp, the football-pro-turned-Republican-politician known for working passionately across party lines.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was too debilitated from brain cancer to accept the award in person. Obama was tender with Kara Kennedy, who accepted on her father's behalf and struggled to keep her composure.