President Obama: 'I Love Vegas -- Always Have'

Obamas remarks about Las Vegas have drawn the ire of its mayor.ABC News Photo Illustration
Obama's remarks about Las Vegas have drawn the ire of its mayor.

President Obama today offered up a mea culpa that many residents here were hoping for -- he loves Las Vegas.

"Let me set the record straight: I love Vegas," Obama said during a speech to the city's Chamber of Commerce. "There you go. Always have. I love Vegas."

Obama's endorsement of Sin City was in response to the uncharacteristic chilly reception he received from local politicians, business leaders and residents who took offense at his recent comments that Las Vegas is a place of excess and overindulgence when Americans should be tightening their belts.

Trying to warm up the crowd, Obama joked that a lucky hand Thursday night helped with the nation's economic woes.

"Just last night I drew a flush on the river and cut the budget deficit in half," he said to laughter.

Obama acknowledged that while his comments stung local residents and workers, including some seated before him, he did not mean it as a slam against Las Vegas.

"That doesn't mean I don't love Vegas," the president said. "It wasn't meant to be a shot."

Yet Obama reiterated his original point -- "I think everybody here would agree that the only place where people should spend their college savings is in college," he said. " There's no contradiction there."

Obama said that Las Vegas has been at "the eye of the storm" in these tough economic times.

"When the economy suffers, the tourism industry is deeply affected," he said. "In fact, you've seen perhaps the steepest drop in tourism in the state's history. And I know things are starting to bounce back, but it's tough go."

Obama put his own spin on a famous Vegas slogan and noted that "what happens in Vegas reflects what's happening across America."

Obama's Sin City slams made for a chilly welcome this week.

The most recent diss came when Obama was speaking on the subject of spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit at a town hall-style meeting in Nashua N.H. The president said it's time for lawmakers to scale back, just like working families on a budget.

"Responsible families don't do their budgets the way the federal government does. Right? When times are tough, you tighten your belts," Obama said, "You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices. It's time your government did the same."

The crowd in Nashua, N.H., applauded but Las Vegas Oscar Goodman mayor was irate. That's because almost exactly one year ago, the president used the city in a similar analogy, when he spoke about excess on Wall Street to a crowd in Elkhart, Ind.

"You are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back," Obama said last year.

"You can't get corporate jets. You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime. There's got to be some accountability and some responsibility."

Goodman not only skipped the airport when the president arrived Thursday night, he also turned down a White House invitation to personally meet with Obama.

"I have told some folks who have asked under what terms I would meet and I said, 'If he calls me and indicates he will rectify the situation,'" the mayor said at his weekly news conference Thursday afternoon, "and buys me a martini, then I would certainly honor that request."

Obama Makes Up to Harry Reid

Goodman said, "The president had a real psychological hang-up about the entertainment capital of the world.

"He didn't learn his lesson the first time. But when he hurt our economy by his ill-conceived rhetoric, we didn't think it would happen again," he said, calling the president "a real slow learner."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also took issue with the repeat remarks, saying in a statement that the president "needs to lay off Las Vegas and stop making it the poster child for where people shouldn't be spending their money."

The president quickly patched things up with the senator, insisting that he was not "saying anything about Las Vegas."

Instead, the president explained, "I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun. There's no better place to have fun than Vegas, one of our country's great destinations."

Obama is in Las Vegas partly to campaign for Reid, who is up for re-election. With Obama heading a high-ticket fundraiser for the incumbent, it's hard to imagine there is any bad blood between the two over the issue. But the mayor still feels slighted. He wants the president to make a public apology.

"We are hurting, we have people who are in foreclosures, we have people who are having a hard time feeding their families and we can't stand to have a flippant statement made," Goodman said.

ABC News' Ben Krolowitz contributed to this report.