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« Strategy Memo: AIG CEO on the Hill | Blog Home Page | Before Obama Visit, Schwarzenegger Touts Stimulus »

Obama Defends Geithner, Targets Executive Compensation

Before taking off on a cross country flight, President Obama talked with reporters for 15 minutes about the AIG mess, renewing his call that Wall Street act more responsibly while defending his administration's role.

Obama also stood by his embattled Treasury Secretary, saying that Timothy Geithner has inherited a more complicated set of challenges than anyone in the job since Alexander Hamilton.

"I have complete confidence in Tim Geithner and my entire economic team," Obama said. "Nobody is working harder than this guy. He is making all the right moves in terms of playing a bad hand."

Obama said that as president, he accepts responsibility for the current controversy over AIG bonuses, but also said he didn't want to engage in talk of who knew what when, and what they did about it. And even as he said he accepted responsibility, he said that nobody in his administration drafted the contracts.

"Nobody here was responsible for supervising AIG and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in," he added. "We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me. And my goal is to make sure that we never put ourselves in this kind of position again."

Obama ignored a question about reports that he received campaign contributions from AIG. He did address the growing public anger over the bonuses, and said he did not want to "quell" that anger, but "channel our anger in a constructive way."

"The most important thing we can do right now is stabilize the financial system, get flowing -- credit flowing again to businesses and consumers, and make sure that we change how these businesses operate so that they don't put us in a situation in which, when things go bad, the taxpayers have to foot the bill, and when things go good, folks are getting not just $6-million bonuses, but $30- or $40-million bonuses."

He also took a shot at some of the lawmakers who have reacted strongly to the situation and criticized his handling of the controversy.

"There are a whole bunch of folks now who are feigning outrage about these bonuses that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago, said, well, we should never meddle in these compensation plans; these are the best and the brightest; they know what they're doing; that's part of the market -- and now, suddenly they're outraged," he said. "The point that I've been trying to make consistently has been that we believe in the free market, we believe in capitalism, we believe in people getting rich, but we believe in people getting rich based on performance and what they add in terms of value and the products and services that they create."

This was a rare Q-and-A session with Obama, and came just before a Capitol Hill hearing on AIG was set to begin. By addressing the situation personally, the president hoped to begin to shift the focus back to his budget plan, which he will be selling to "voters" as he called them during his California trip.