LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- President Barack Obama addressed a broad range of political topics during an appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Tuesday, insisting among other things that he's not spending too much time yet focused on next year's potential GOP campaign rivals.
"I'm going to wait until everybody's voted off the island," Obama joked. "Once they narrow it down to one or two (candidates), I'll start paying attention."
Obama is currently on a three-day trip to Nevada, California and Colorado. The trip includes several fundraisers for his re-election bid.
During a wide-ranging interview, Obama criticized Washington's harsh political climate, telling Leno that "the things that folks across the country are most fed up with, whether you are a Democrat, Republican, (or) independent, is putting party ahead of country or putting the next election ahead of the next generation."
The two men discussed several foreign policy topics, including the situation in Libya and the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Regarding Libya, Leno asked the president for his reaction to the death of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"This is somebody who for 40 years has terrorized his country and supported terrorism," Obama said. Gadhafi "had an opportunity during the Arab Spring to finally let loose of his grip on power and to peacefully transition into democracy. We gave him ample opportunity, and he wouldn't do it."
Obama said Gadhafi's demise sent "a strong message around the world to dictators" that "people long to be free," and that "universal rights" and aspirations should be respected.
The bloodied Gadhafi's televised jostling with his captors was not something Americans "should relish," the president said
"There was a reason after (Osama) bin Laden was killed, for example, we didn't release the photograph," the president said. "I think that there's a certain decorum with which you treat the dead -- even if it's somebody who has done terrible things."
The president hit back at GOP critics of the American role in the NATO-led Libya campaign, insisting that the United States did not, as many have claimed, "lead from behind."
"We lead from the front," Obama asserted, highlighting the U.S. role in pushing a U.N. resolution backing NATO's intervention, as well as the U.S. military's role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"The difference here is we were able to organize the international community," Obama said. "There was never this sense that somehow we were unilaterally making a decision to take out somebody. Rather, it was the world community."
The Libya operation "is a recipe for success in the future," the president declared.
Obama also defended his choice to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year -- a decision blasted by GOP critics concerned the move will imperil U.S. gains in the region.
"I don't know exactly how they are thinking about it," Obama said. "We've been in there for years, over 4,000 young men and women killed, tens of thousands injured, some of them for life, (and) spent close to $1 trillion on this operation. I think the vast majority of the American people feel as if it is time to bring this war to a close, particularly because we still have ... work to do in Afghanistan."
The president noted the importance of the recent death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike. Al-Awlaki played a critical role with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, heading up external operations and focusing on attacking the United States, officials said.
Al-Awlaki was "probably the most important al Qaeda threat that was out there after bin Laden was taken out," Obama said. "It was important that working with the enemies, we were able to remove him from the field."
Turning closer to home, Obama had strong praise for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- his toughest competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
"I'm really proud of her," Obama said. "It really wasn't that difficult" to come together after the campaign. "The truth is Hillary and I agree on the vast majority of issues."
Obama appeared to dismiss rumors of a possible job swap between Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in 2012, telling Leno that "they are doing great where they are."
The president expressed a degree of sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement, noting that "people are frustrated, and that frustration has expressed itself in a lot of different ways" -- including both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party.
As a huge basketball fan, the president called the current NBA lockout "heartbreaking."
"We should be able to figure out how to split a $9 billion dollar pot so that our fans, who are allowing us to make all of this money, can actually have a good season," he said.
Asked about his health and personal habits, Obama told Leno that he has "definitively" quit smoking, and remains "big on exercise."
The president said he works out on a regular basis with first lady Michelle Obama in a small White House gym.
"It's embarrassing sometimes," the president said. "She'll get up there a half an hour earlier than me. She will have already run 10 miles or something ... (when I'm) staggering up to the gym."
Noting the first lady's highly publicized campaign for fitness and healthier eating habits, Obama said his wife actually does enjoy more unhealthy cuisine on occasion.
"She loves french fries. She loves pizza. She loves chicken. Her point is just in moderation," Obama told Leno.
As for the upcoming Halloween holiday, the president said his wife generally hands out fruit and raisins.
The president said he told his wife that "the White House is going to get egged if this keeps up."