BURBANK, California (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama was alternately somber and light-hearted in an unusual appearance on America’s top-rated late-night variety show on Thursday, moving deftly from the economic crisis to the April arrival of a “First Dog” in the White House.
In an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” the first by a sitting president, Obama talked seriously about his economic plans and voiced strong support for embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Wearing a bright red tie and an American flag pin on his lapel, the president pitched his budget and said he was stunned to learn crippled insurance giant AIG had paid out big bonuses to employees after using taxpayer money to stay afloat.
But he switched gears to talk about family life in the White House, confirming a timetable for the First Family’s acquisition of a canine companion. Obama said the dog would arrive after his planned trip to Europe in early April.
“When we get back, the dog will be in place,” Obama said, adding his daughters Sasha and Malia were not the only ones looking forward to its arrival. “They say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” he joked.
More seriously, Obama said critics had underestimated the number of challenges facing his Treasury secretary, who has taken heat for his handling of the AIG bonus scandal.
“This guy has not just a banking crisis. He’s got the worst recession since the Great Depression. He’s got an auto industry ... that has been on the verge of collapse,” Obama said.
“I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job.”
Obama reiterated the need for a government bailout of AIG and said his administration was doing everything it could to get the bonus money back.
“The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem,” he said, “but the larger problem is we’ve got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough.”
Pushing his plans for broad reform of financial regulation, Obama said many of the practices that led to the meltdown of the U.S. financial industry were not against the law.
“Here’s the dirty little secret, though: most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal,” he said.
Republicans pointedly noted that amid the firestorm over AIG bonuses and deepening recession Obama had taken time to appear and joke on a television show.
“We’ve got a crisis on our hands. The president is correct about that. He flies off to Los Angeles tonight to be on the Jay Leno Show,” Senator Jon Kyl, a member of the Republican leadership.
Kyl suggested that when Obama returns to Washington he quickly get to the bottom of the bonus flap to prevent it from occurring again and figure out how to remedy what Kyl called the crisis within the financial industry.
On life in the White House, Obama told Leno he is getting a basketball hoop for the mansion’s tennis courts but is in the meantime improving his bowling — a game at which he did not excel during his campaign.
“I’m making progress on the bowling,” he said.
Asked by Leno whether people who played basketball with him allowed him to win now that he’s president, Obama dead-panned: “I don’t see why they would throw the game, except for all those Secret Service guys with guns around.”
He confided that he enjoyed traveling on Air Force One. “I personally think it’s pretty cool,” he said, adding that his kids were “just not as impressed.”
Leno teased Obama for his White House living arrangements.
“People think it’s amazing that the president would take the time to leave Washington, D.C. and fly 3,000 miles to come to California,” Leno said before Obama came on stage.
“But you know something, that happens to a lot of guys when their mother-in-law moves in with them.”
The talk show host also took a dig at the vice president.
“We were also going to have Vice President Joe Biden come out and say a few words, but you know, it’s only an hour show.”