President Barack Obama surprised his "brother," Vice President Joe Biden, on Thursday by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction -- an honor only given to three other people in the last three presidencies.

Speaking during a ceremony at the White House, Obama said he wanted to bring people together to "pay tribute" to Biden, "someone who has dedicated his entire professional life to service."

While Biden knew of a planned send-off for senior staffers, he did not know the gathering was actually for him or that he was about to be presented with the nation's highest civilian honor. 

"This is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary career," Obama said of Biden as he began to read off a laundry list of achievements since first being elected to public office at 29. 

"For the past eight years, he could not have been a more devoted or effective partner in the progress that we've made," Obama added.

The mutual respect and admiration between Obama and Biden is no secret; Obama even joked about their great American bromance Thursday, but the president was sincere in his appreciation for having Biden by his side for the past eight years.

"Your candid, honest counsel has made me a better president," Obama said.

Characterizing Biden as a "resilient and loyal civil servant," Obama then awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- a move that visibly stunned the vice president -- for his lifetime of service on behalf of the nation.

"I had no inkling," Biden, 74, said after receiving the medal. 

"I knew how smart you were; I knew how honorable you were; I knew how decent you were from the couple years we worked in the Senate; and I knew what you were capable of. But I never fully expected that you’d occupy the Bidens’ heart…all of us," the vice president said, choking back tears. "Mr. President I’m indebted to you. I’m indebted to your friendship. I’m indebted to your family."

It will be the last such award that Obama gives before he and Biden leave office on Jan. 20.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction -- a special version of the medal -- has only been given to three other people: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Gen. Colin Powell, according to published reports.

- With Reuters