President Obama is in California for a series of speeches and an appearance Thursday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno — perhaps the first late-night talk show date by a sitting president — to rally public support in the face of the AIG bonus scandal and grim federal budget deficit projections.
The not-so-Golden State is hungry for an economic recovery. Obama noted during a stop in Pomona that 1 in 10 Californians is out of work today — a dismal ratio the rest of the country is fast approaching.
"But Californians aren't just bearing the brunt of this crisis. You are doing the work that needs to be done to overcome it," the president said as he toured a garage of the future run by Southern California Edison.
At the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center, electric cars can be recharged with rooftop solar panels. Obama met with some of the engineers there who are working to develop longer-lasting car batteries.
"I know it's not easy," he said. "There are days, I'm sure, when progress seems fleeting, and days when it feels like you're making no progress at all. That's how it feels in the White House sometimes, too."
Obama joked that trips like this one — outside of Washington — are how he recharges his own batteries. He is also trying to generate support for his budget proposal, with its ambitious investments in alternative energy, health care and education. At a town hall meeting in Orange County, he said those investments are critical to the nation's long-term economic growth.
"I want to describe to you the economy we want to build: an economy that's built on hard work and responsibility, not high-flying financial schemes," the president told the audience.
Those schemes are what have torpedoed the nation's financial system, he said, and forced the government to spend huge amounts of money bailing out such companies as insurance giant AIG. All week, Washington has been consumed with the $165 million in bonuses AIG paid to some of the very executives who contributed to the company's downfall.
Obama acknowledged that it's his job to clean up the mess, even though he said his administration didn't cause it. "I know Washington's all in a tizzy and finger-pointing," he said. "Listen. I'll take responsibility. I'm the president."
There were no audience questions during the town hall about the AIG bonuses. Instead, Obama heard from people such as Isa de Quesada, an Orange County school teacher who got a layoff notice last Saturday.
"The teacher of the year also received a pink slip," he said. "We're talking about quality teachers being laid off because of something — I don't know what."
The government must deal with those job losses and with long-term economic challenges, Obama said, even though some people in Washington and on Wall Street would prefer a single-minded focus on the banking crisis.
"I understand their thinking about solving their problem," he said. "But I've said before, when you're president, you've got to walk and chew gum at the same time."
Not everyone appreciates the president's multitasking, though. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas complained Thursday morning that Obama should spend less time appearing on late-night television shows and more time making sure his Treasury Department is fully staffed, to avoid future embarrassments like the bonuses at AIG.