Asking Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE to serve as secretary of State was "one of the best decisions I ever made as president," President Obama told philanthropists and donors gathered Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City.
The president showered the former first lady — and front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination — with praise, saying he "will always be grateful for her extraordinary leadership."
Obama went on to joke that he still had "a lot of debt to pay" because of the miles Clinton traveled when in his administration. But he also praised the former New York senator for her "post-administration glow."
"She looks much more rested," Obama said to laughter.
The president and his former Cabinet secretary were making their first joint appearance since Clinton's interview with The Atlantic this summer, during which she levied criticism against the president's handling of Syria.
In the interview, Clinton said that she would have armed the Syrian opposition two years ago and suggested failing to do so had enabled the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against [Syrian President Bashar] Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.
Clinton subsequently called Obama to tell him the remark was not intended as an attack on him or his policies, according to a spokesman.
Last week, Obama won congressional authorization for a program to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition as part of the administration's fight against ISIS. White House officials have defended the move, saying that they used the time to properly vet which rebels would receive U.S. arms and training.
The president did not discuss that program or the first round of airstrikes launched against ISIS and al Qaeda targets in Syria during his speech.
Instead, the president highlighted his administration's efforts to assist civil society groups. Obama on Tuesday will issue a new presidential memorandum requiring federal agencies to consult regularly with civil society groups and resist efforts by foreign governments to limit American assistance to activists.
"When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsible and effective," Obama said.
"Partnering [with] and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the U.S. government," he added.
The president also levied criticism at countries where free speech rights were restricted — including Russia, China, and Venezuela — accusing those governments of "relentless crackdowns vilifying legitimate dissent."
"The United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people and pushing governments to uphold those rights," Obama said.