Obama, in Calif., Says He Hopes To Return 'Balance' to Economy

President Barack Obama is visiting California, which has been hard hit by the economic crisis. Obama says the state will receive $145 million to help communities struggling with home foreclosures. Video by AP
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

COSTA MESA, Calif., March 18 -- Striking a sharp populist tone, President Obama used a town hall meeting here Wednesday to argue that he is "trying to bring balance back to our economy" after years when only the wealthiest Americans benefited from government policy and lack of regulation.

The president, at the first stop of a two-day visit to Southern California, said he took responsibility for the AIG scandal even though the contracts paying out the $165 million in bonuses were written before he became president.

But he told an exuberant audience of teachers, community bankers, construction workers and others that the issue was only "a symptom of a much larger problem" he is confronting in trying to fix a broken financial system, revive an economy in deep recession and push through a $3.6 trillion budget.

"And that is the system and culture that made them possible -- a culture where people made enormous sums for taking irresponsible risks that have now put the whole economy at risk," Obama said to cheers.

"So we are going to do everything we can to deal with these specific bonuses," he continued in 20-minute opening remarks striking for the stridency of their assault on the financial industry. "But what's just as important is that we make sure we don't find ourselves in this situation again, where taxpayers are on the hook for losses in bad times and all the wealth generated in good times goes to those at the very top."

The president's trip here represents the beginning of a national campaign for his budget, which he has said demands new spending to change the health-care system, energy policy and public education that may not yield result for years. He will hold a prime-time news conference Tuesday, the second of his young presidency.

California supported Obama in last year's election, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed the president's stimulus package, which will bring a state with a 10.1 percent unemployment rate more than $30 billion in federal help.

But an angry populism fed by the financial crisis is rising in the country, including among moderate Republicans, whose support for Obama in this state was important to his success. Here in traditionally conservative Orange County, which he lost in last year's election, his visit was as much a show of solidarity as a sales opportunity.

Shedding his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, the president took eight questions from the crowd, which chanted "Obama, Obama" as he shook hands along the edges of the throng before taking the stage.

"People at the very top -- and I'll be honest with you, I'm in that category -- we were seeing all the benefits," the president told the estimated 1,300 people gathered inside a convention hall at the fairgrounds.

Obama suggested he would accept the label "tax-and-spend Democrat" from his Republican critics if that is how they characterize a budget proposal he says would raise taxes on households making more than $250,000 and reducing them for a neglected middle class.

"It allows us to pay for health-care reform for a lot of people out there working every day but are one illness away from bankruptcy," Obama said. "I don't think that's unreasonable. I don't think that's socialism. I think that's a realization that we're all in this together."

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