The National Medal of Arts honors artists and patrons of the arts. The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work helped deepen the nation's understanding of the humanities.
"One of the people that we honor today, Joyce Carol Oates, has said, 'Ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery.' That's what we do," Obama said before presenting the medals.
"And for more than two centuries, this experiment has been conducted by revolutionaries and pioneers, by immigrants who braved hardship and inventors who tested new ideas, [by] soldiers who fought for our freedom and [by] ordinary citizens who marched for their rights."
Recipients include renowned pianist Van Cliburn, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee, actress Meryl Streep, singer-composer James Taylor, musician-composer-producer Quincy Jones, scholar-educator Jacques Barzun and biographer-literary critic Arnold Rampersad, the White House daily schedule indicated.
Before the ceremony Obama and Vice President Joe Biden received the daily briefing. The president also met with senior advisers.
In the afternoon, Obama and Biden were to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.