Obama: 'Over-the-top' claims about ISIS plays into their hands

President Obama in his final State of the Union address called protecting the American people from terrorists "priority No. 1" but sought to downplay what he said was “over-the-top” hype over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) strength.  

"Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out," he said Tuesday night, using another acronym for ISIS. 

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"But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," he added. "Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages, they pose an enormous danger to civilians. They have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.” 

Terrorism shot to the top of Americans' concerns after ISIS late last year carried out attacks in Paris and inspired an attack in San Bernardino, Calif. But the president argued that building ISIS up played into its narrative to recruit more fighters. 

“That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are  —  killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed," he said.

Republicans have accused the president of not doing enough to combat ISIS and criticized him for underestimating the threat it poses.

He also came under heavy criticism for calling the group the “JV team." 

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush seized on the opportunity to remind people of those remarks. 

"It appears Obama is still under the impression ISIS is the JV team. Next President must understand the enemy and the threat. #SOTU," he tweeted. 

In recent months, the administration has stepped up its military efforts against the terrorist group, announcing the deployment of 50 special operations troops to Syria and of another force that would conduct U.S. raids on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

And Iraqi forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, have made gains in recent months, retaking the Iraqi cities of Sinjar, Beiji and most recently Ramadi from the terrorists. The coalition has also begun targeting ISIS's oil infrastructure. 

"With nearly 10,000 airstrikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps and their weapons. We are training, arming and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria," the president said.

He also dinged GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz for saying he would "carpet bomb" ISIS. 

"The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage," he said. 

Obama warned terrorists that the U.S. would eventually go after them.

"If you doubt America’s commitment  —  or mine  —  to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden," he said. "Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you. And it may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits." 

The president, however, focused mostly on domestic priorities and sounded notes of restraint on foreign policy, characterizing his approach as “patient and disciplined.” 

"We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now," he said. 

"It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us and make sure other countries pull their own weight," Obama added.  

“That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.”

- Updated at 11:26 p.m.