WASHINGTON – Joining a wave of public anger, President Barack Obama blistered insurance giant American International Group for “recklessness and greed” Monday and pledged to try to block it from handing its executives $165 million in bonuses after taking billions in federal bailout money.
“How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” Obama asked. “This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s about our fundamental values.”
The bonuses could contribute to a backlash against Washington that would make it tougher for Obama to ask Congress for more bailout help – and jeopardize other parts of the recovery agenda that is dominating the start of his presidency. Thus, the president and his top aides were working hard to distance themselves from the insurer’s conduct, to contain possible political damage and to try to bolster public confidence in his administration’s handling of the broader economic rescue effort.
David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, said in an interview with the Associated Press that there was no question that the bonuses and the public’s anger over them could run many things off the rail.
“People are angry because they’ve seen exhibit after exhibit of irresponsibility and people walking away with money in their pockets,” he said.
Obama had scheduled a speech Monday to announce new help for recession-pounded small businesses. But first, he said, he had a few words to say about AIG. He lost his voice at one point and ad-libbed, “Excuse me, I’m choked up with anger here.” It was just a light aside, but he meant the sternness of his remarks to come through.
“This is a corporation that finds itself in financial distress due to recklessness and greed,” he said.