The disparate group that made up the 35th annual honorees consisted of actor Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, bluesman Buddy Guy, TV talk show host David Letterman, and Led Zeppelin rock band members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones.
Before an evening program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, the president and first lady Michelle Obama were hosts to the seven Kennedy Center honorees at a reception in the White House's East Room.
"Tonight, we continue a tradition here at the White House by honoring some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together," Obama said. "We've got Buddy Guy sitting next to Dustin Hoffman. We've got Dave Letterman alongside one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. I don't think Dave dances.
All three living members of Led Zeppelin in one place -- so this is a remarkable evening.
"And it speaks to something that has always made this country great -- the idea that here in America, more than any other place on Earth, we are free to follow our own passions, explore our own gifts, wherever they may lead us. And people from all around the world come here to make sure that they too can provide us the incredible gifts that they have.
"Tonight's honorees didn't just take up their crafts to make a living. They did it because they couldn't imagine living any other way. That passion took each of them from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of their profession."
Obama went on to note how Guy "made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen -- that worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitoes were getting in."
The president rattled off Hoffman's best movies before adding, "not bad for a guy who signed up for his first acting class after a friend told him, 'nobody flunks acting, it's like gym.'
Obama took a few lighthearted jabs at Letterman, noting his longevity alongside his late-night TV predecessor Johnny Carson.
"Now, Dave will be the first to tell you that he's no Carson, that all his years on television have only made him appreciate even more how unique Johnny was. But that's a good thing, because if he were more like Johnny, he'd be less like Dave," Obama quipped.
Of Makarova, who gained stardom after defecting from the Soviet Union in 1970, Obama said "she remains as humble as ever -- once saying, 'I'm never proud of what I've done. Sometimes, I'm not ashamed.' So thank you, Natalia, for the understatement of the century. And thank you for sharing your talents with all of us."
The president said he worked with the speechwriters to come up with a smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin but filed.
"It's been said that a generation of young people survived teenage angst with a pair of headphones and a Zeppelin album and a generation of parents wondered what all that noise was about," Obama said. "But even now, 32 years after John Bonham's passing -- and we all I think appreciate the fact -- the Zeppelin legacy lives on."
Obama joked "there was some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around. So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about 3 inches thick and Secret Service all around."
The honorees and a plethora of entertainment celebrities and political movers-and-shakers attended White House reception and the evening at the Kennedy Center.
Earlier in the day, Obama played a round of golf with former President Bill Clinton at the Andrews Air Force base course. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Virginian gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe made up the rest of the president's foursome, the White House press office said.