President Obama received a thunderous welcome Wednesday at a town-hall-style gathering, where he touted his economic stimulus program in one of the states hit hardest by the economic recession.
Making his first visit to California since becoming president, Obama spoke to several thousand people with tickets who braved long waits in a hot sun before being admitted to a crowded building at the Orange County fairgrounds south of Los Angeles.
Many lined up overnight Monday for the free tickets Tuesday.
Shedding his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves, Obama fielded questions from the crowd about illegal immigration, economic recovery and whether he plans to run for re-election for a second term. Obama didn't commit to running again but said, "I would rather be a great president taking on tough issues for four years than a mediocre president for eight years."
Obama also voiced frustration at the actions of bankers and others who issued loans and mortgages that carried high risks, then swapped securities among themselves without having the money to cover potential losses.
"There was no serious regulation to say hold on, stop, wait a minute, you guys are getting way overextended and putting the economy at risk," Obama said.
Obama's audience was overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic. At one point, a man interrupted Obama, shouting, "We love you, Obama!" The president replied, "I love you back."
The president's two-day trip takes him into areas hard hit by mortgage foreclosures and unemployment. The unemployment rate in California is more than 10%. Obama holds another town-hall session in downtown Los Angeles today.
He said the stimulus legislation he signed into law will create or save 396,000 jobs in California and 3.5 million across the country over the next two years.
Obama didn't wait to be asked about bonuses at taxpayer-backed AIG, an insurance corporation. Addressing it in opening remarks, he underscored his outrage and said he takes responsibility for the controversy even if he didn't create it.
"It goes against our most basic sense of what is fair and what is right," Obama said, decrying lavish bonuses paid to leaders of a company relying on "extraordinary assistance from taxpayers to keep its doors open."
"It's my job to make sure we fix these messes," Obama said.
Noting local frustrations with traffic, he said the federal aid would finance the expansion and rebuilding of State Road 91, a major freeway across Southern California, and create 2,000 jobs. He said the aid would also add police in Inglewood, a Los Angeles suburb, and pay for a new hospital at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base to the south of here in San Diego County.
In the crowd was a lawyer from Newport Beach, Jack Kayjanian, 57, who said he backed Obama because he believes the Democratic president can improve the U.S. image abroad.
"My question is what are you going to do to increase our image abroad," he said in an interview before the event. "I'd like to hear him say we're going to be more tolerant and not be a bully."
Jennifer Robinson, 58, of Cerritos said she is concerned about the administration's handling of the financial crisis. She was laid off from her job as a travel agent three weeks ago and suffered big losses in her retirement account. "Have they thought about doing anything for the losses in 401(k)s?" she said.
But she added: "I have faith in Obama. … I think he's making a good try."