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Obama Defends His Use of Executive Authority on Immigration

23 Nov

WASHINGTON — President Obama, in an interview broadcast on Sunday, said he rejects Republican criticism that he has exceeded his authority in moving to spare millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, adding that he has been “very restrained” in his use of executive authority.

Angry Republican lawmakers have accused Mr. Obama of unconstitutional, even imperial, overreach. They have pointed to past remarks in which he himself suggested that his powers to act were limited.

But Mr. Obama, in the interview aired Sunday on the ABC News program “This Week,” said that history was on his side. Both Democratic and Republican presidents, going back decades, had taken similar actions, he said.

“The history is that I have issued fewer executive actions than most of my predecessors, by a long shot,” he said in the interview, which was taped Friday. “The difference is the response of Congress — and specifically the response of some of the Republicans.”

He said historians of the modern presidency would confirm that he had “actually been very restrained.”

Mr. Obama has framed his action not as an amnesty for some undocumented immigrants but as a directive, in part, to federal agencies to focus their attention on those with criminal records, not on law-abiding, taxpaying, longtime immigrants. In all, about five million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would be protected.

“The fact is that we exercise prosecutorial discretion all the time,” he said, adding that Republicans remained free to pass an immigration law that would overturn his own actions.

Mr. Obama was also asked in the interview about concerns of possible violence in Ferguson, Mo., and about the outlines of the 2016 presidential race.

In Ferguson, a grand jury is expected to decide shortly whether to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting on Aug. 9 of Michael Brown, a black teenager. The F.B.I. has warned of potential violence there and in other cities across the country, depending on the outcome.

Mr. Obama urged those in Ferguson to “keep protests peaceful,” but he also envisioned that things might go badly. “You know, we saw during the summer the possibility of even overwhelmingly peaceful crowds being overrun by a few thugs who might be looking for an excuse to loot or to commit vandalism,” he said.

The president said he had spoken to Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri to ensure that he had a plan to respond to any violence and “to be able to sort out the vast majority of peaceful protesters form the handful who are not.” More broadly, he said, law enforcement and minority communities across the country needed to find ways to deepen their levels of trust.

Asked whether he might visit Ferguson once the grand jury’s decision becomes public, Mr. Obama said he would “wait and see how the response comes about.”

The president also suggested that he might keep a low profile as the campaign to elect his successor geared up.

“I think the American people, you know, they’re going to want — you know, that new car smell,” he said. “You know, they want to drive something off the lot that doesn’t have as much mileage as me.”

He acknowledged that Hillary Rodham Clinton, should she seek the Democratic nomination as is widely expected, might at times try to detach herself from his record.

“She’s not going to agree with me on everything,” he said of Mrs. Clinton, his former secretary of state. Still, he said, she would make a “great” president.