Obama Goes Public To Offset Bonus Outrage

Amid a storm of public scorn over the bonuses paid to executives of the AIG insurance company, the president makes a series of appearances designed to turn the rage over the bonuses and the bailout to his advantage.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It's been a long week for the White House, dominated by public outrage over taxpayer dollars being used to pay big bonuses to AIG executives. But rather than shy away from the spotlight, President Obama has been, well, everywhere.

That includes traveling the country and showing up on sports and entertainment programs on TV, all while promoting his economic recovery plan. To use the language of his favorite sport, Mr. Obama is working both ends of the court, offense and defense. He's sticking to his game plan, despite the unexpected.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: This week the White House wanted its star performer to be out there, taking his proposals directly to the people at town hall events in California and selling himself to TV viewers on ESPN and on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Mr. JAY LENO: (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno") The 44th president of the United States, please welcome President Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: As one TV critic put it, it gave the president a chance to explain things with Leno playing the role of the regular guy who's got some basic questions - among them, those AIG bonuses.

Mr. LENO: I know you were angry, 'cause, you know, doing what I do, you kind of study body language a little bit, and you looked very angry about these bonuses, actually, stunned. I mean…

President BARACK OBAMA: Stunned. Stunned is the word.

Mr. LENO: Tell people what happened. Just - I know people have been over it, just - well, what?

Pres. OBAMA: Here's what happened. You've got a company, AIG, which used to be just a regular old insurance company. Then they insured a whole bunch of stuff, and they were very profitable and it was a good solid company.

GONYEA: But the president explained, then AIG started selling derivatives to banks around the world, insuring billions of dollars in subprime mortgages. Then the subprime market went bust.

Pres. OBAMA: The problem with AIG was that it owed so much and was tangled up with so many banks and institutions that if you had allowed it to just liquidate, to go into bankruptcy, it could've brought the whole financial system down.

GONYEA: For days now, questions have persisted about how much the administration knew about those bonuses and why they weren't stopped. After joining the populist protest on Monday, the president spent the week taking responsibility, if not actually accepting blame.

Pres. OBAMA: Nobody here drafted those contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising AIG and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in. We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me.

GONYEA: And if we continue the basketball analogy for just a bit here, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, a key player on the Obama team, suddenly seemed to be in deep foul trouble. Already under a wary public eye because of his past tax troubles and a still incomplete plan for dealing with the banking crisis, Geithner has been under fire for not stopping the AIG bonuses. Three times this week, the president expressed his support for his Treasury secretary. On Monday…

Pres. OBAMA: I want everybody to be clear that Secretary Geithner has been on the case.

GONYEA: Then Wednesday.

Pres. OBAMA: I have complete confidence in Tim Geithner and my entire economic team.

GONYEA: And last night with Jay Leno.

Pres. OBAMA: I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job.

GONYEA: Still, the Leno appearance was a reminder of how this White House is prepared to reach out to the public in ways that other presidents have not. There was another example of that this week on ESPN, where Mr. Obama talked about his picks for the NCAA tournament.

Pres. OBAMA: Is there a drum roll around here?

(Soundbite of drum roll)

Pres. OBAMA: Going with the Tar Heels.

GONYEA: The White House hopes that appearances like these will preserve the new president's personal rapport with the public, making it easier for him to ask the country for patience and sacrifice.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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