TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. President Barack Obama is back in Washington after a trip to Southern California, where he fielded questions from everyday voters in two town halls and sat down with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno. Here they are talking about some of the flaws in our financial system.
(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")
Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "Tonight Show"): I watched those people in New York, even people who'd lost everything. When Bernard Madoff went to jail, at least they felt they got...
President BARACK OBAMA: Right.
Mr. LENO: Something.
President OBAMA: They got some satisfaction. Here is the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal. And that is a sign of how much we've got to change our laws.
COX: For a roundup of the president's trip, we turn now to NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Hello, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Tony, although sad to be with you on this day.
COX: I understand and appreciate your thoughts. I was all set to ask you, Ron, about the president's appearance before two town hall meetings and how his message resonated with those in this state who are out of work - the unemployment numbers are near 24 percent in some counties - and to talk to you about AIG as well. But it seems his appearance on Jay Leno was getting most of the attention. That can't be what the White House wanted, is it?
ELVING: On the other hand, the attention that it's getting is primarily positive attention. And if you watched the broadcast, you had to be struck with how calm, how confident, how smooth this young man, who is our president, seemed. He seemed to be on top of it. He seemed to be somehow having a good time, even in these bad times, and yet he seemed to be quite cognizant of what was bad about the times and hopeful about what could be done to lead to better times. I thought it was a boffo performance on Leno, so it's certainly not bad for the president that that's getting a lot of attention, although they would have liked to have had more of the sense of those people at those town halls.
COX: And that little gaffe that he made is getting some headlines, but it may not go too, too far, do you think?
ELVING: It appears that the Special Olympics spokesperson, who is responding today, accepts the apology for that as an unintentional, sort of a slight.
COX: Now, the president first dropped down in Orange County, which is just south of L.A. - a county he lost, by the way, to Senator John McCain. He held the town hall meeting there, another one here yesterday. Talk about his calculated strategy to go directly to the people and how effective it's been so far. Interestingly, Ron, the issue of the AIG bonuses never came up in the first town hall meeting.
ELVING: That's right. I think some of that is a fascination on the part of people who are into the media coverage, into watching Wall Street. Perhaps a little bit more involved in the details of what exactly has gone wrong. A lot of people, especially on the ground, in the counties that are hardest hit in California, elsewhere around the country - you mentioned 24 percent unemployment in some California counties; Detroit, the city, has hit 22 percent. In places like that, people are less interested in talking about what went wrong than they are in how this can be turned around, how the situation can be made better, and how you can start creating jobs again. President Obama landed in Orange County and Santa Ana, which is a particular part of the city closer to the L.A. - a part of the county that is a little closer to L.A., and which has been becoming Democratic in recent elections. It used to be a hotbed of Republicanism a couple, three decades ago. Still - not so much anymore.
COX: One thing more. You're in Washington. And Washington, Ron, is doing something right now that it is really good at, and that is pointing fingers at people who are vulnerable when something goes wrong. Treasury's Tim Geithner, Senate Banking chair Chris Dodd, AIG's Ed Liddy are all received - on the receiving end of a lot of the criticism over the escape clause that allowed the payment of that 165 million in bonuses. And now, Congress is trying to piecemeal legislation to get the money back somehow, perhaps through heavy taxation. How big a blunder is this for Barack Obama?
ELVING: I think it is a blunder. I think it's a distraction, to put it mildly, and it is a misdirection of the entire program to try to help the economy to recover. It's important that the president get that entire program back on track and get people focused on what can be done, as opposed to errors that have been made in the past. And it's more than errors, of course. It's also bad behavior on the part of some people we already knew were being over- compensated. Now we're finding out they're being overcompensated even after we learned just how bad they had been at trying to make money for AIG. So it's a distraction; it's a problem. The president has focused on it. It's not the derailment of his entire program, and I think some lessons will be learned about how to sell that program going forward.
COX: Ron Elving, thank you again. And let me also just thank you for the many contributions that you have made, the important ones to the success of News & Notes over the years. We appreciate it.
ELVING: It's been my very great pleasure to be with you, Tony.
COX: That was NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. He joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C.