LOS ANGELES, March 19, 2009— -- President Barack Obama went cross-country to deliver his economic message -- but his attempt at a joke about the Special Olympics during the first appearance by a sitting president on "The Tonight Show" could open up controversy on a whole new front.
Towards the end of his approximately 40-minute taping, the president talked about how he's gotten better at bowling and has been practicing in the White House bowling alley, even bowling a 129.
"That's very good, Mr. President," Leno said sarcastically.
It's "like the Special Olympics or something," the president said.
When asked about the remark, the White House said Obama did not intend to offend.
"The president made an off-hand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said. "He thinks the Special Olympics is a wonderful program that gives an opportunity for people with disabilities from around the world."
Facing tough questions about the performance of his Treasury Secretary, $165 million in bonuses for AIG officials and anticipating a fight over his $3.55 trillion budget, Obama has not had a particularly good week, and it's unlikely the quip will help matters.
After all, while he may have escaped the Beltway with his trip West, he was still in the political line of fire even before his "Special Olympics" remark.
Republicans upped the negative rhetoric on Obama and his staff today, with critics saying his Leno appearance is a sign that he's too focused on campaigning and not enough on governing and analyzing how and why the AIG bonus scandal happened.
But Obama used his taping on "Leno" to address some of the issues, restating his support for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and saying he was "stunned" when he learned of the AIG bonuses.
"People just had this sense of entitlement: We must be the best and the brightest," Obama said of the bonuses.
"We're going to do everything we can to get these bonuses back," he added.
Obama said Geithner is addressing the nation's economic problems "with grace and good humor. He understands that he's on the hotseat."
"I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job," Obama said. "He is a smart guy. He is a calm and steady guy. I don't think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed him."
Obama made his comments at the show's taping, and it was unclear whether all of them would actually air later in the evening.
Earlier, at Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center in Pomona, Calif. -- where he toured a lab that incorporates alternative fuel vehicles and tests electric car batteries -- Obama discussed green jobs and touted his economic plan.
"It's always, always nice to get out of Washington for a little bit, recharge your batteries. You know a little bit about that here," the president said to laughter.
He may have been recharging his batteries, but he couldn't escape the AIG scandal.
The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday afternoon to slap a 90 percent tax on bonuses given to employees with family incomes above $250,000. The president put out a paper statement supporting the bill, but didn't say anything about the legislation in myriad appearances before voters in California.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., criticized the president for flying "out to Los Angeles tonight to be on the Jay Leno show. My suggestion is he come back, since he's taken the full responsibility" for the AIG controversy, "to get his people together and say, 'Alright, I want to know exactly what happened and who did what when and how are we going to prevent this from ever happening the future.'"
"The AIG bonuses make the president subject to the charge that he's living above the store but he's not minding it," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Alexander even quoted, out of context, a joke Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski made when asked about how the president had picked rival UNC to win the NCAA tournament without even placing Duke in his predictions for the Final Four.
"Somebody said that we're not in President Obama's Final Four, and as much as I respect what he's doing, really, the economy is something that he should focus on, probably more than the brackets," Krzyzewski said with a laugh.
He then added: "Why would I care about that? I love the guy, and I think he's gonna be great."
Republicans took the mock offense part of the quote.
"He's even found time to fill out his NCAA basketball brackets," said Alexander, who called it "a healthy thing," but then went on to impugn it.
"He picked North Carolina and he caused the Duke coach, our Olympic coach, Coach K, to say respectfully, 'You might be spending less time on the brackets, Mr. President and more time on the economy.' I think that's what we'd like to say, with respect."
The president responded to the controversy on the Ed Schultz radio show, saying, "Coach K, I think, is a great coach. And you know, Reggie Love, my assistant, played for Coach K. And so it's not surprising. I didn't pick him to go to the finals. Look, he's a competitive guy. I just don't think they've got the inside game to go all the way. But I look forward to him proving me wrong."
Republicans today also seized upon comments made by the president's top aides.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel recently was quoted in The New York Times saying that as angry as Obama is about AIG, "his main priority is getting the financial system stabilized, and he believes this bonus furor is a big distraction in that effort."
In Thursday's Washington Post, senior adviser David Axelrod is quoted saying, "People are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about AIG. They are thinking about their own jobs."
In an e-mail, the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to tie Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., up for reelection in 2010, to Axelrod's and Emanuel's comments and claimed that by supporting the stimulus bill Lincoln was voting to allow "AIG to distribute huge bonuses with taxpayer dollars."
"Does Sen. Lincoln -- who has railed against AIG's handing out taxpayer-funded bonuses as 'outrageous' -- agree with the Obama White House that the voters in Arkansas who have lost their jobs and their homes 'are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about AIG?'" asked NRSC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson. "After her constituents' hard-earned dollars were used to pay for these lavish executive bonuses, how can Blanche Lincoln agree with the White House's assessment that people do not care?"
And it's not just the Republicans that have been critical of the Obama aides' comments. Liberals are also were troubled.
"I don't think the administration understands how angry people are out here," liberal columnist David Sirota said.
The president defended his moves while speaking in California.
"Somebody was saying the other -- today, I think -- that I shouldn't be on 'Leno.' [That] I can't handle that and the economy at the same time," Obama said, chuckling.
As for AIG, he continued the firm language, but tried to channel the outrage into support for his economic plans.
"We cannot allow what happened at AIG to ever happen again in this country," Obama said this afternoon at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles. "I know a lot of you are outraged about this. I'm outraged, too. The idea that some of the very people who drove our economy into the ground could accept bonuses with one hand while they were taking taxpayer money with the other goes against our most basic sense of what is fair and what is right.
"We also want to do this because it serves the most important goal we have today, which is to rebuild our economy in a way that is consistent with our values -- an economy that rewards hard work and responsibility, not high-flying finance schemes; an economy that is built on a strong foundation, not one that's propelled by overheated housing markets and maxed-out credit cards. That's how we'll bring about a recovery that endures."