First lady Michelle Obama also attended the event, which gave National Medals of Arts or Humanities to luminaries like Jose Andres, Terry Gross, Louise Gluck, Santiago Jiménez, Jr., Moises Kaufman, Ralph Lemon, Luis Valdez and Jack Whitten.
Obama said he and his wife have "tried to make it a priority to promote the arts and the humanities, especially for our young people," describing this year's recipients as "essential to who we are as Americans."
"Their paths and their mediums could hardly be more different, and that's what makes them great," the president said. "They open our experience to theirs, and for that we honor them here today."
Obama joked that medal recipient Morgan Freeman was absent because the actor was "undoubtedly off playing black president again."
"He never lets me have my moment," Obama quipped.