NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced support Friday for President Barack Obama's use of executive actions to protect about 5 million immigrants from deportation, setting up a sharp contrast with Republicans on an issue that could play a leading role in the next presidential campaign.
"I think the president took an historic step and I support it," Clinton said in an appearance at the New York Historical Society, embracing her fellow Democrat's moves to address immigration.
The former secretary of state, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, said Obama's actions were in line with previous moves by Democratic and Republican presidents alike and urged Congress to "follow the lead" of a measure approved in the Senate in 2013. She also placed the efforts in the context of families, many of whom she said are longtime residents raising children and paying taxes.
"This is about people's lives," she said, adding that it was about "people who serve us tonight, who prepared the food tonight."
It was Clinton's first public comments on Obama's immigration orders, which have been harshly criticized by many Republicans in Congress who accuse Obama of overstepping his executive powers. Clinton issued a statement shortly after Obama's speech Thursday night expressing support.
Charging hypocrisy, the Republican National Committee released a Web video earlier in the day that included the audio of an April 2008 Clinton speech in which she criticized President George W. Bush's use of signing statements and other means "to transform the executive into an imperial presidency."
Clinton spoke about the immigration plan during an interview with Walter Isaacson, the biographer and CEO of the Aspen Institute, at the event. Clinton said she was studying the life and presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and discussed the need for Americans to find a "common purpose."
"I think we just need to get back into that can-do, problem-solving spirit that the Roosevelts exemplified," she said.
The former first lady jumped back into the political conversation as dozens of her staunchest allies gathered at a New York hotel earlier Friday — even though she has yet to say whether she will run.
Ready for Hillary, a Democratic super PAC unaffiliated with Clinton, convened the meeting of 200 financial backers and Clinton insiders to prepare for a campaign.
"It was a leap of faith," Harold Ickes, who worked in Bill Clinton's White House, said of the Ready for Hillary effort. "We didn't know if people would come to us, but we now have 3 million names, which will be important to her if she runs."
Clinton sits far atop a hypothetical field of Democratic candidates that is beginning to take shape.
Vice President Joe Biden and outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley are potential challengers to Clinton and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who has opened an exploratory committee.
Discussions at the session included lessons learned from the 2014 election, the media landscape and what the 2016 campaign might look like.
Attendees said they had no inside knowledge on when Clinton would make her decision. But they said the early organizing on her behalf would facilitate the transition from private citizen to candidate. Ready for Hillary has identified 3 million supporters and raised more than $10 million.
"It's given her the luxury of time," said Jerry Crawford, an Iowa attorney.
They cautioned against the notion that Clinton would have a big advantage because of her existing network from her husband's two terms and her own political operation. "She's not inevitable," said Adam Parkhomenko, Ready for Hillary's executive director. "It's not going to be easy."
The ballroom included leaders of Democratic groups Priorities USA Action, American Bridge 21st Century and Correct the Record.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: http://twitter.com/KThomasDC