Appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” President Obama said that he was stunned by the bonuses awarded to AIG execs and echoed comments he has made in recent days that the payments are symptoms of larger problems in the financial system.
“‘Stunned’ is the word,” Obama said, adding that it “speaks to a broader culture that existed on Wall Street where I think people just had this general attitude of entitlement where “We must be the best and the brightest. We deserve 10 million or 50 million or a-hundred-million-dollar payouts.'”
He continued, “The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem, but the larger problem is we’ve got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough and people have a sense of responsibility and they understand that their actions are going to have an impact on everybody. And if we can get back to those values that built America, then I think we’re going to be OK.”
When Leno joked about the absurdity of AIG’s offer to give half the money back, Obama quipped, “Well, you know, the only place I think this might work is in Hollywood.”
Although Leno didn’t grill Obama as if he were doing “60 Minutes,” or Jon Stewart, for that matter, the host said that the House’s effort to tax AIG execs after the fact “kind of scared me.”
Leno said, “If the government decides they don’t like a guy, all of the sudden, ‘Hey we’re going to tax you, and then, ‘Boom,’ and it passes. That’s seems a little scary, as a taxpayer….It was frightening to me as an American that Congress or whoever could decide ‘I don’t like that group, let’s pass a law and tax them at 90 percent.'”
Obama said that he understood Congress’ frustration but suggested that “the best way to handle this is to make sure that you close the door before the horse gets out of the barn.”
“What happened here was the money has already gone out and people are scrambling to try to find ways to get back at them. …The important thing over the next several months is making sure that we don’t lurch from thing to thing, but we try to make steady progress, build a foundation for long-term economic growth. That’s what I think the American people expect.”
Obama also told Leno he thought Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was doing an “outstanding job,” noting that there is too much blame game and not enough focus on solutions.
“I don’t think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed to him,” Obama said. “This guy has not just a banking crisis. He’s got the worst recession since the Great Depression.”
Leno quipped in his monologue, “A lot of people were surprised that the president came to NBC, I mean you would think he would be tired of big companies with high paying executives on the brink of disaster.”
The president’s unusual appearance was the first by a sitting commander-in-chief on “The Tonight Show,” even though Obama had appeared twice before, as a senator and as a declared presidential candidate. Obama has been in California to build support for his budget and economic plan, and appearing on late-night TV is believed to be a way to reach audiences who may not be your regular news junkies.
In his 35-minute conversation with the president, Leno also joked with Obama about flying on Air Force One and about his promise, as yet unfulfilled, to get his two daughters a dog.
“This is Washington. That was a campaign promise,” Obama said. “No, I’m teasing. The dog will be there shortly.”
Obama also quipped of the Beltway environment, “In Washington, it’s a little like ‘American Idol,’ except everybody is Simon Cowell.”
More photos here, and highlights below.