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Obama defends Geithner, pans AIG in Leno interview

U.S. President Barack Obama told talk show host Jay Leno Thursday he was stunned to hear of bonuses given to AIG employees, and he vouched for embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, saying he's doing an outstanding job.
U.S. President Barack Obama appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Burbank, Calif., on Thursday. ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))
U.S. President Barack Obama told talk show host Jay Leno Thursday he was stunned to hear of bonuses given to AIG employees, and he vouched for embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, saying he's doing an outstanding job.

In an appearance on NBC's Tonight Show that aired Thursday, Obama told host Leno his administration is going to do "everything we can to get these bonuses back."

"But I think the most important thing that we can do is make sure that we put in a bunch of financial regulatory mechanisms to prevent companies like an AIG holding the rest of us hostage," he said.

The president added that the bigger problem is the culture that allowed traders to claim them. He says that's got to change if the economy is to recover.

Geithner doing 'outstanding job'

Later in the interview, he defended Geithner, who has come under fire for not knowing sooner about bonuses paid by insurance giant AIG totalling $165 million, even though the company received billions in public bailout money.

"On the AIG thing, all these contracts were written well before I took office, but ultimately, I'm now the guy who's responsible to fix it. And one of the things that I'm trying to break is a pattern in Washington where everybody is always looking for somebody else to blame. And I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job," said Obama.

"He is a smart guy and he's a calm and steady guy. I don't think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed him."

Listing the recession, the banking crisis and the need to co-ordinate with other countries, Obama acknowledged that Geithner's "on the hot seat."

Geithner told CNN he first learned the extent of AIG's bonus plan on Tuesday, March 10.

"On Tuesday, I was informed about the full scale and scope of these specific bonus problems," Geithner said in an interview with CNN that aired Thursday night.

"You know, it's my responsibility; I was in a position where I didn't know about these sooner. I take full responsibility for that."

Obama likens bowling performance to Special Olympics

Leno took the 35-minute interview into lighter territory as it approached its tail end, and elicited a response that had the White House on the defensive within hours.

When asked about his famously sub-par bowling skills, Obama boasted in self mockery that he had "bowled a 129," adding "it was like the Special Olympics or something."

After the interview, White House spokesman Bill Burton issued a statement about the remark:

"The President made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics. He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world."

Obama, in California on a two-day swing to promote his economic agenda, is the first sitting U.S. president to appear on the Tonight Show. He defended his appearance on the show earlier Thursday, saying the spot did not keep him from other pressing matters.

California Republican party chairman Ron Nehring, however, was not amused that Obama finished his visit with an appearance on Leno's late-night show. While the two "swap jokes," Nehring said in a statement, "hardworking California families continue to struggle to keep their homes and jobs."

Obama said he can do more than one thing at a time and is working on a host of issues, including climate change and health-care reform.

With files from the Associated Press

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