By most accounts, this past week was one of the most difficult in the young presidency of Barack Obama. At the heart of it all was the public upheaval over $165 million in bonuses paid to employees of AIG, a company largely responsible for bringing the world's financial system to its knees and now being propped up by U.S. taxpayers. The bonuses touched off a cultural war between Wall Street and Main Street, both of whose support the president needs to help stabilize the economy.
After campaigning in California to drum up support for his $3.6 trillion budget, the president sat down with 60 Minutes in the Oval Office for a conversation about the AIG debacle, the economy, and getting the hang of the world's most difficult job.
"Were you surprised by the intensity of the reaction, and the hostility from the AIG bonus debacle?" correspondent Steve Kroft asked.
"I wasn't surprised by it. Our team wasn't surprised by it. The one thing that I've tried to emphasize, though, throughout this week, and will continue to try to emphasize during the course of the next several months as we dig ourselves out of this economic hole that we're in, we can't govern outta anger. We've got to try to make good decisions based on the facts in order to put people back to work, to get credit flowing again. And I'm not gonna be distracted by what's happening day to day. I've gotta stay focused on making sure that we're getting this economy moving again," President Obama replied.
The president ordered Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to use every legal means to recover the bonus money from AIG. If it is not repaid, it will be deducted from the company's next bailout payment. The House decided to extract its own revenge by passing a bill that would impose a tax of up to 90 percent on the AIG bonuses and on the bonuses of anyone making more than $250,000 a year who works for a financial institution receiving more than $5 billion in bailout funds.
"I mean you're a constitutional law professor," Kroft remarked. "You think this bill's constitutional?"
"Well, I think that as a general proposition, you don't wanna be passing laws that are just targeting a handful of individuals. You wanna pass laws that have some broad applicability. And as a general proposition, I think you certainly don't wanna use the tax code to punish people," the president replied. "I think that you've got an pretty egregious situation here that people are understandably upset about. And so let's see if there are ways of doing this that are both legal, that are constitutional, that upholds our basic principles of fairness, but don't hamper us from getting the banking system back on track."
"You've got a piece of legislation that could affect tens of thousands of people. Some of these people probably had nothing to do with the financial crisis. And some of them probably deserve the bonuses that they got," Kroft said. "I mean is that fair?"
"Well, that's why we're gonna have to take a look at this legislation carefully. Clearly, the AIG folks gettin' those bonuses didn't make sense. And one of the things that I have to do is to communicate to Wall Street that, given the current crisis that we're in, they can't expect help from taxpayers but they enjoy all the benefits that they enjoyed before the crisis happened. You get a sense that, in some institutions, that has not sunk in; that you can't go back to the old way of doing business, certainly not on the taxpayers' dime," Obama said. "Now the flip side is that Main Street has to understand, unless we get these banks moving again, then we can't get this economy to recover. And we don't wanna cut off our nose to spite our face."
"Your Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been under a lot of pressure this week. And there have been people in Congress calling for his head. …Have there been discussions in the White House about replacing him?" Kroft asked.
"No," Obama said.
Asked if Geithner had volunteered or asked whether to step down, Obama told Kroft, "No. And he shouldn't. And if he were to come to me, I'd say, 'Sorry, Buddy. You've still got the job.' But look, he's got a lot of stuff on his plate. And he is doing a terrific job. And I take responsibility for not, I think, having given him as much help as he needs."