Hillary Clinton Discusses Syria, Partisanship, But Can't Avoid 2016 Talk

(Credit: Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

PHILADELPHIA - Just over an hour before President Obama was scheduled to speak this evening, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the president's call for a "strong response" to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but acknowledged that the debate over the issue is "good for our democracy."

"The Assad regime's inhuman use of lethal chemicals against men, women, and children … violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order," she said today at the National Constitution Center, where she was honored and awarded the organization's Liberty Medal.

She again voiced her support for the president's position, saying the situation in Syria "demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States."

"This debate is good for our democracy. As our founders knew, fervent arguments are the lifeblood of self government. How could a republic last if citizens had no opinion of the issues of the day or were too intimidated to express them?" Clinton said.

Clinton did not mention the possibility of Syria surrendering its chemical weapon stockpiles to international control as she did Monday at an event at the White House, nor did she explicitly say the words "military strike," but said "it is natural and right in a democracy for us to debate, for us to disagree, forcefully even."

"It's what distinguishes us from authoritarian societies where dissent is forbidden," Clinton said. "In our country today we are once again in the middle of some big noisy debates: What are the demands of America's global leadership in a changing world? How do we respond when international rules of the road are violated? How do we provide both security and liberty at home and abroad? Every era faces its own questions and has to fashion its own answers and we are no different."

Clinton, a former and possibly future presidential candidate, spent much of her speech discussing the concept of "active citizenship," warning those gathered on the museum lawn that partisan gridlock will make the nation suffer, saying that while she was secretary of state she "saw first hand" how "American unity leads to strength, but discord leads to perceived weakness."

"The world watches so carefully the decisions we make in Washington, sometimes they watch more closely than we even do, and our finest moments of any era we achieve great things and provide a model for democracy that inspires people everywhere, but when we let partisanship override citizenship, when we fail to make progress on the challenges facing our people here at home our standing in the world suffers," Clinton said. "America's democracy is not a birth right nor is our global leadership, it must be earned and preserved by every generation."

Clinton, dressed in a bright white blazer, also referenced the 12-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, noting as U.S. senator from New York she walked the streets of lower Manhattan saying it looked like "Dante's Inferno."

"To keep America safe and strong in a dangerous world we will have to rely on the foundation that has served us for more than two centuries, the values enshrined in our founding documents, the unity and wisdom of our leaders and the courage and service of our citizens," Clinton said.

The event, which honored Clinton and her work in public service and politics and was hosted by ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas, did have its light moments including a speech by the Chairman of the National Constitution Center and another possible 2016 presidential candidate, Jeb Bush.

"Hillary and I come from different political parties, and we disagree about a few things, but we do agree on the wisdom of the American people, especially those in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina," Bush, former Republican governor of Florida, said with a chuckle, noting more seriously that Clinton has "devoted her life to public service."

Clinton mentioned former President Bill Clinton's close relationship with former President George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush's father, calling them the "classic odd couple of American politics," and noting they "just had one of their annual playdates."

"So today Jeb and I are not just renewing an American tradition of bipartisanship, we are keeping up a family tradition as well," Clinton said.

Clinton's possible future candidacy was not just a subtle undertone to the event.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a friend of Clinton's, told the crowd, "I fully expect she will break another barrier in four years and she will be the first first lady to walk back into the White House in her own right as President of the United States of America."

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Guttman also spoke and referenced Clinton's possible political future saying, "something many of us can't wait to (do is) celebrate the first woman president of the United States."

The event included photographs and a narrated video of Clinton's life, including her time at age 13 when she volunteered for Richard Nixon and even belonged to the College Republicans at Wellesley College. The event included video tributes from many notable people, including former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair, Republican governor of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett, ABC News' Cokie Roberts, and many others.

A handful of protesters across the street from the event loudly chanted throughout the event with Nutter referencing them as a sign of the country's freedom of speech. On the eve of the o ne-year anniversary of the attack of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya the group shouted "Benghazi" throughout the one-hour event.

Clinton was originally slated to address national security and civil liberties issues, something she announced at a speech to the American Bar Association in California last month. At that event she spoke on voting rights and announced a series of speeches to address high profile public policy issues, including this event, where she was supposed to speak on the balance transparency in national security policies, likely addressing the controversy over the National Security Agency's spying programs.

An aide to Clinton told ABC News Monday that "given the developments in Syria" as well as the president's address to the nation, plans for a "robust policy speech" were "put on hold," calling it "obviously not the right time."

At the ABA event she also announced a third speech where Clinton said she would focus on the impact of U.S. national security policies on its reputation abroad.

Clinton was initially criticized for not weighing in on the president's decision for a limited military strike on Syria, but she discussed the conflict in Syria often as secretary of state.

The day before Clinton left the State Department in January, she called the Syrian conflict "distressing on all fronts."

"I think I've done what was possible to do over the last two years in trying to create or help stand up an opposition that was credible and could be an interlocutor in any kind of political negotiation," Clinton said.

In February, it was revealed that the president had rebuffed a plan last summer by Clinton, then CIA Director David Petraeus and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arm the Syrian rebels.

ABC News' Dana Hughes and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.