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Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama's Political Capital

President Barack Obama declared Monday that insurance giant American International Group is in financial straits because of "recklessness and greed" and said he intends to stop it from paying out millions in executive bonuses. Video by AP

"You could argue that if taxpayers hadn't bailed out AIG, the contracts wouldn't be worth the paper they were signed on," Cuomo said.

The Obama administration was already facing a skeptical public and members of Congress critical of the huge sums of money the government has allocated to shoring up the devastated financial system.

News of the latest AIG bonuses only compounded the political problems that the huge expenditures pose for the president. The administration has tried to manage the public anger by expressing empathy with the outrage over the large outlays to financial firms, while explaining that they are necessary to stabilize the economy.

Earlier this month, the administration added to the bailout money needed to keep AIG functioning, saying failure of the company would be disastrous for the larger economy. And the administration is all but certain to return to Congress for hundreds of billions of dollars more to aid the financial system.

But the bonus issue, in particular, is hounding Obama as he pursues his larger goals, in part because of the president's own repeated declarations of outrage -- offered again yesterday -- aimed especially at the firms that are feeding at the public trough.

In February, Obama announced tough new restrictions on executive compensation that promised an end to massive salaries for executives of failing companies. Similar rules were eventually written into legislation and hailed as evidence that executive compensation would be checked.

But reports about the latest AIG bonuses quickly undermined whatever political capital Obama has earned with his past efforts.

Over the weekend, White House officials expressed outrage at the bonuses paid out by AIG but said there was nothing they could do to stop them. After news of the bonuses dominated news coverage for two days, the administration took a newly aggressive stance.

Asked why the administration is attempting to claw back the bonuses now but did not do more to block the payments earlier this month when it was authorizing the latest $30 billion in new loans to the struggling insurer, Gibbs was unresponsive.

"The administration is taking the steps today to go back and see what can be done," he said.

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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