He got caught in traffic on the 110. He bantered with Jay Leno. And he sought to reassure people worried about the sagging economy and the spiraling national debt.
President Obama ended a two-day swing through Southern California on Thursday, a trip that exposed him to both celebrity and everyday struggles. Like many people navigating the freeways at midday, he was briefly tied up in traffic, his motorcade wheezing along at 10 mph as he made his way from west of downtown Los Angeles to Burbank. But he also got to trade quips on “The Tonight Show” with Leno, mixing a sober assessment of the AIG bonus scandal with details about his life inside the White House.
He said that he and his wife, Michelle, joke about the gargantuan security detail that is now a permanent part of their lives. Landing at the Orange County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, he told Leno, he wanted to make a short walk to the site of his first appearance. The planet’s most powerful man was told no.
When one Secret Service agent explained that it was “750 yards,” the president said, he replied it would be only a five-minute walk. “Yes, sir. Sorry,” Obama was told.
“Now,” he joked, “they let me walk on the way back, but the doctor is behind me with a defibrillator.”
He added: “Michelle jokes about how our motorcade -- you know, we’ve got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dog sled.”
The audience laughed.
“The submarine. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on.”
On a more serious topic, Leno pressed Obama on the bonuses paid to AIG executives.
He asked the president about a bill moving through Congress that would slap a 90% tax on the recipients of the AIG bonuses. Leno said it was “scary” to see the government targeting a select group of people who’ve become the focus of public anger.
Obama offered no enthusiasm for the bill, which passed the House on Thursday.
“I understand Congress’ frustrations,” the president said.
“But I think the best way to handle this is to make sure that you close the door before the horse gets out of the barn.”
Obama went on to say he supported more fundamental changes in tax policy, in which wealthier Americans pay more to cover healthcare, energy and other broad-based policies.
Leno seemed to tease Obama when the subject turned to beleaguered Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. Geithner has come under sharp criticism for not intervening at an earlier point to block the AIG bonuses.
Defending Geithner, the president rattled off a string of challenges facing the Treasury secretary: the recession, the credit crisis and the collapse of the car industry, among them.
Geithner understands “he’s on the hot seat,” Obama said.
At that, Leno said: “Now, see, I love that it’s all his problem.”
“No, no, no,” Obama objected.
He said that “ultimately all this stuff is my responsibility,” and he added: “I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job.”
Prodded by Leno, Obama offered a glimpse into his White House existence:
His bowling game. Going well. He’s practicing on the White House lane, notching a score of 129. “It was like Special Olympics or something,” Obama said.
(Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, told reporters on Air Force One after the Leno show taping: “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 the Special Olympics are a wonderful program.”)
His basketball game. Obama said he wants to rig the White House tennis courts with mobile basketball hoops, because the existing rim is “inadequate.” Do fellow players throw games? Leno asked. No, Obama said, but he added: “I don’t think I get the hard fouls that I used to.”
The family dog. Leno asked if a breed had been chosen. “Listen, this is Washington -- that was a campaign promise,” the president joked before quickly adding: “I’m teasing. The dog will be there shortly.” Leno asked if the family had settled on something called “a Portuguese water head.” Obama replied, “It’s not that. It’s not a water head, whatever they are.”
Sublime moments occasionally are lost on his two young daughters, Obama said. For instance, he described a helicopter flight to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland. As the copter banked over the Washington Mall, his youngest, Sasha, pointed to a candy bowl on board and said, “Are those Starbursts?” the president recounted. “So they’re splitting up the Starbursts and we’re flying over the Lincoln Memorial. So they got a whole ‘nother level of cool.”
Earlier Thursday, Obama toured an electric vehicle plant in Pomona and presided over a town-hall-style meeting at a Los Angeles high school.
At both stops, he announced new financial incentives to get the economy back on track.
At the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex town hall, he said California would be getting $145 million from the Housing and Urban Development Department to ease the home foreclosure crisis. Part of the money is to go toward mortgage assistance for low- and middle-income households.
At the Edison International facility in Pomona, he announced a $2.4-billion competitive grant program that he hopes will spur innovations that make plug-in vehicles feasible for consumers.
As was the case at an Orange County town hall meeting Wednesday, the president got a rapturous reception in Los Angeles.
He was introduced by the state’s celebrity governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the audience seemed more star-struck by Obama.
During the question-and-answer session, one woman said: “As a mixed-raced individual, it’s so fantastic to finally have a role model and a leader that I can actually identify with, so thank you.”
One man told Obama he feared the nation is racking up too much debt. He asked if the U.S. would “one day just simply be broke.”
“No,” Obama replied. He asserted that the nation shouldn’t leave “a mountain of debt” for succeeding generations, and then he mounted an attack on Republicans.
“I try to be a bipartisan guy, but when I hear some folks from the other party in Congress start howling about the deficits, I’m starting to think, ‘Well, where have you been? What have you been doing?’
“You would have thought a good time to do something about deficits was when the economy was going good, right?” the president said. “You would have thought that’s when you would have been saving away a little bit.”
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, seemed impressed. In an interview, he described Obama’s Los Angeles trip as “historic.”
“Usually people are so guarded,” the governor said. “The aides are all so guarded and they’re afraid you’ll blow it or make news that’s unintended. He’s so smart. He’s so clear in his thinking and he’s so well-informed.”
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.
‘I was so overwhelmed’
An excited crowd greets the president at an L.A school. NATION, A23
Hollywood is left out of Obama’s visit, Tina Daunt writes. CALENDAR, D1