While much of Washington spent last week in a blind fury over the $165 million in bonuses paid to executives at AIG, President Obama chose a time-honored way to stay above the fray: He left town.
During his two-day visit to California, a state reeling from a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, soaring unemployment, and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, Obama tried not just to change the political conversation but to harness growing populist outrage over the sagging economy and turn it into political support. "I know Washington's all in a tizzy and everybody's pointing fingers at each other," Obama said at the first of two town hall meetings in the Los Angeles area, acknowledging that, he, too, was infuriated by the AIG bonuses. But he was quick to change the subject from bank bailouts. "Listen, I'll take responsibility. I'm the president," he said. "It's my job to make sure we fix these messes, even if I don't make them."
From Jay Leno's couch, where he was the first sitting president to appear on a late-night television show, to a weekend appearance on 60 Minutes, Obama brought his bully pulpit with him on the road. He used his foray outside Washington to distance himself from the beltway chatter ("Washington [is] a little bit like American Idol," he told Leno, "except everybody is Simon Cowell") and to outline how the stimulus package and his proposed budget, with its bold expansions into green energy and healthcare reform, will help solve the country's economic problems. On Friday, Obama also launched a potentially controversial foreign policy initiative, releasing an unprecedented videotaped message to Iran offering a "new beginning" of diplomatic engagement.
The president certainly didn't want for a captive audience in California, where thousands of ticket-seekers lined up to get into his town hall meetings. Most of the questions Obama took in the occasionally rowdy, unregulated events focused not on AIG or on foreign policy but on problems closer to home, like Obama's plans to help laid-off teachers and autoworkers and struggling community banks. Obama drew his biggest cheers when he told an Orange County crowd that, because of the $787 billion recovery bill, a freeway cutting through the area would be expanded, creating 2,000 jobs. "He's a rock star, and they're eager to see him because they want solutions," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the politics and media institute at California State University-Sacramento. "All politics is local, and your job and your economy and your family is the most important thing."
Not to put too fine a point on it, one questioner asked Obama if some of the stimulus funds that have been refused by the Republican governors of states like South Carolina might be redirected to, say, California. Obama, looking serious, didn't promise anything. "I think [turning down stimulus funds] is a mistake," Obama said. "Let's do what we need to do to get through this difficult time."
While he didn't have much trouble selling Californians on the idea, as he returns to Washington, now Obama has to convince some of those Simon Cowells.