President Obama used the first visit of any sitting U.S. president to Ethiopia's capital to say that country has "more work to do" in its transition to democracy and dedication to respecting human rights.

"We are very mindful of Ethiopia's history," Obama said in Addis Ababa during a joint appearance with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Ethiopia's Constitution and democratically elected governance are relatively new constructs there, Obama conceded, but Desalegn's ruling party needs to do more.

"I don't bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues," Obama said in explaining that he raised the issue with Desalegn during their private meeting. But he said he raised the issues "with respect," and said the U.S. will try to be a "constructive partner."

However, as he did in Kenya or does when engaging China, Obama said he believes that respecting human rights and the democratic process is a core "interest and concern in our foreign policy."

Desalegn's government is under fire from human rights and opposition leaders for invoking terrorism to crush dissent. After parliamentary and regional elections on May 24, the State Department issued a statement commending the elections but warning about violations of the democratic process.

"The United States remains deeply concerned by continued restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties, and independent voices and views," the statement read. "We regret that U.S. diplomats were denied accreditation as election observers and prohibited from formally observing Ethiopia's electoral process.

"The imprisonment and intimidation of journalists, restrictions on [non-governmental organizations] activities, interference with peaceful opposition party activities, and government actions to restrict political space in the lead-up to Election Day are inconsistent with these democratic processes and norms," the statement continued.

For his part, Desalegn called Ethiopia a "fledgling democracy" and said that breaking old totalitarian habits is hard.

"We feel we are on the right track" and are trying to learn from the "best practices" of the U.S., he said.

Opposition leaders say that Desalegn's government brands them as terrorists to silence them.

Obama said that as part of new intelligence sharing with Ethiopia to counter Al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups active in Africa, the U.S. has looked into whether some political groups are actually terrorist organizations.

The U.S. opposes any group that propagates violently overthrowing democratically elected governments, Obama said. But so far, the intelligence doesn't indicate that the groups have "tipped" into terrorism. They are operating as political entities that oppose the current government.

"We tend to be protective of them, even if we don't agree with them," Obama said about political opposition groups.