.By Savannah Guthrie and Alex Johnson
NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 2 hours, 34 minutes ago
LOS ANGELES - President Barack Obama said Thursday evening that he was “stunned” to hear about the $165 million in bonuses that were paid to employees of troubled insurer AIG over the weekend, promising to do everything he could to “get these bonuses back.”
“These financial industries are holding us hostage,” Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” which NBC said was the first time a sitting president had been a guest on a late-night talk show.
Obama said the AIG payments raised moral and ethical problems, but he stressed that the bigger problem was the culture that allowed traders to claim them.
“We need to get back to a place where people know enough is enough,” he said. “If we can get back to those values that built America, then we’ll be OK.”
Obama used the visit as an opportunity to defend Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has been sharply criticized for his handling of the AIG controversy. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called for Geithner to resign Thursday afternoon.
But Obama said Geithner was doing an “outstanding job,” handling a full plate with grace and good humor.
"He is a smart guy. He is a calm and steady guy," Obama said. "I don't think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed him."
Listing the recession, the banking crisis and the need to coordinate with other countries, Obama acknowledged that Geithner was “on the hot seat.” But he said too many in Washington were trying to figure out whom to blame when they should be focused on fixing the problems.
“Look, I’m the president. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility,” Obama said. “If I’m not giving [Geithner] the tools he needs, it’s on me.”
Comedian turns serious interviewer
The interview with Leno, which was taped at 7 p.m. ET for air at 11:37 ET and PT, was the final stop of the president’s two-day visit to Southern California, where he undertook a whirlwind tour of appearances to rally support for his efforts to revive the recession-riven economy.
While Obama appeared on “The Tonight Show” as a candidate, none of his predecessors had ever appeared on the show — or any other late-night talk show — while in office, NBC said.
“In a way, going on ‘The Tonight Show’ is Barack Obama’s version of the fireside chat,” said Michael Beschloss, a noted presidential historian.
Obama was seeking to “get his serious points across,” Beschloss said, but “in a way that, presumably, Americans are going to like.”
The appearance was billed as a chance for the president to reach ordinary Americans to talk about the economy, and Leno mainly played the role of serious interviewer, questioning Obama about the AIG controversy and the economy.
Obama complained that “most of the stuff that got us into trouble is perfectly legal,” adding, “That’s a sign that we need to change our laws.
“It’s legal to charge 30 percent on our credit cards,” he said. “When you buy a toaster, there’s a law that says your toaster needs to be safe, but no law that says if your credit card explodes, you’re safe.”
Still, it wasn’t all serious news of the day.
In his opening monologue, Leno joked that people were surprised that Obama would come on NBC, figuring that he would be tired of big companies on the brink of disaster with a bunch of overpaid executives, a reference to questions that have been raised about the financial health of General Electric Corp., the parent company of NBC Universal.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of NBC News and Microsoft Corp.)
Asked about being president, Obama said it was “a little like ‘American Idol,’ except everyone is Simon Cowell — everyone has an opinion.”
But “I welcome the challenge,” he said.