WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama expressed confidence those opposing the Islamic State group will "prevail," and said he thinks there will be "significant progress" in that effort by the time he leaves office.
In an interview with NPR News released Monday, Obama called Islamic State a "virulent, nasty organization," but stressed that the worst damage the militants could do to the United States is if people change their way of life and values.
"It is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and this is not an organization that can destroy the United States," he said. "This is not a huge industrial power that can pose great risks to us institutionally or in a systematic way. But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried."
More than a year ago the president authorized the beginning of a U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria to go after the militants. Since then, coalition planes have conducted about 9,000 airstrikes, and Obama said Islamic State has lost 40 percent of the populated territory it once controlled.
But the militants still hold large areas, including major cities in both Syria and Iraq, bringing criticism of the U.S. response and calls for Obama to send in American ground troops.
He told NPR there is "legitimate criticism" of how his administration has handled the campaign that lies in not properly communicating what is being done. But he said in recent weeks critics -- particularly Republican candidates who want his job and advocate more airstrikes -- have been asked what they would do differently and do not have answers.
"Well, who is it you are going to bomb? Where is it that you are going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet bombing, what do you mean?"
Obama highlighted the need to help local forces be the ones who reclaim their territory, with U.S. assistance, so that stable government structures can take hold in the region. He said that takes more time than sending in Marines and that he makes no apologies about wanting to act "appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values."
"What I would say to my successor is that it is important not just to shoot but to aim, and it is important in this seat to make sure that you are making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that's coming from your commanders and folks on the ground, and you're not being swayed by politics."
As for who will move into the White House in January 2017, Obama said he was confident one of the candidates from his Democratic Party would win next year's election. He said Democrats also stand a good chance of winning back control of the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 54-46 majority. The president advocated an issue-based campaign, saying he thinks his party has a strong record of "real progress" on a range of issues.
When asked about a year filled with social change that included the legalization of gay marriage, mass protests against police brutality and the debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees, Obama said the U.S. is changing in many positive ways. He cited conversations with his teenage daughters and their friends, saying they are as a generation "more tolerant, more welcoming of people who are different than them."
But he also acknowledged how demographic changes and economic stresses from the financial crisis, globalization and technological advances are making it hard for people, particularly blue collar men, to thrive in the new economy the way they once did. He said that brings the potential for anger, frustration and fear.
"Some of it justified but misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign."
Obama also discussed the climate change agreement that more than 190 countries reached earlier this month to try to keep global temperatures from rising too high. He said it does not entirely solve the problem, but puts the world on a track to deal with it. Part of the effort is Obama's plan to curb carbon emission from U.S. power plants and boost the amount of power that is generated by renewable sources.
He acknowledged the opposition from Republicans, but said that even if a Republican succeeds him, by that point there will be a growing realization that the problem is real and that responding to it represents opportunities that create jobs and save consumer money.
"Keep in mind that the Republican Party in the United States is perhaps literally the only major party in the developed world that is still engaging in climate denial," he said, adding that such a position is a "really dangerous thing."
The interview closed with Obama saying no president tries to achieve a 100 percent approval rating. He pointed to critics of revered former presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and said finding reasons not to like a leader is a "well-traveled path here in this country."