COSTA MESA, Calif. – Striking a sharp populist tone, President Barack 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.
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.
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 inside a convention hall.
Obama suggested he would accept the label “tax-and-spend Democrat” from his Republican critics if that’s 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.”