For the first time ever, a sitting president sat down for an interview on a late-night chat show: “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
Leno was not expected to be terribly tough on Barack Obama and he wasn’t. The conversation was congenial on both sides. This was not exactly Jim Cramer-Jon Stewart.
“I think Kevin [Eubanks] looks good in a suit,” Obama said as opener. “He could be Secret Service.”
He mused about how limiting it can be being President in terms of where he can do, what he can do, how big his motorcade is (”the caboose, the dogsled, the submarine.”). Leno opened with his first semi-serious question and it was a softball: “So much scrutiny. Is it fair to judge so quickly?”
“We are going through a difficult time,” Obama said. “I welcome the challenge. I ran for President because I know we needed big changes. I do think in Washington, it’s a little bit like ‘American Idol.’ Except everyone is Simon Cowell… that’s what makes this a democracy.”
“I do think the American people are in a place they understand it took us awhile to get us into this mess. It will take us awhile to get out of it. As long as I’m taking steps to deal with issues like health care and energy and education that mattered deeply to their daily lives, I think they’ll give us some time.”
Leno noted that Obama seemed angry about the AIG bonuses. Obama explained the whole derivatives problem that led AIG astray and how they were so intertwined into the financial system, the government couldn’t allow the company to liquidate. The bonuses, he said, spoke to a Wall Street “culture of entitlement.”
Leno did note that it’s a little scary if the AIG execs have their bonuses specially taxed away, couldn’t they do that to anybody? “That’s scary,” he said. Obama, after the commercial break, understood that Congress is reacting to public anger. In the future, the goal is to find ways to close the door before the horse is let out.
“Shouldn’t someone go to jail?” Leno asked.
“Here’s the dirty little secret,” Obama said. “Most of what happened was perfectly legal. That tells you how much we have to change the laws.”‘
He noted that there’s nothing wrong with innovation in financial markets but there needs to be more laws so “taxpayers after the fact aren’t taken advantage of.” He noted a lot of the economic growth in recent years was paper growth in the financial business, not real growth. More smart folks need to go into fields outside of financial systems that are more productive.
The talk-show host wondered where all the stimulus money is. Obama noted that banks are keeping the money because their balance sheets are so bad. “We’re doing a diagnostic test,” he said, “on each of the banks. What are their capital levels. Can they sustain lending?”
Leno asked where people should put their money. Obama said the banks are safe, don’t put cash in mattresses. He noted that demand will come back. He noted the replacement levels of car sales is 14 million a year; we’re annualizing only 9 million now. People will eventually have to buy new cars. “Our future is bright if we take some smart steps now,” he said.
Leno was far tougher on his own bosses at NBC. “A lot of people were surprised that the president came to NBC. You’d think by this time he’d be tired of big companies on the brink of disaster with a bunch of overpaid executives,” Leno said during his monologue.
Obama has been on a modest media campaign, picking March Madness teams on ESPN (North Carolina Tar Heels are his pick) and doing an interview with “60 Minutes” set to air Sunday.
On a lighter note, he thinks Air Force One is cool (while his daughters aren’t as impressed.) He’s worked on his bowling skills and reached 129. A basketball court is forthcoming, using the tennis courts at the White House. In terms of his game now, “I don’t get the hard fouls I used to,” he said.