This is the transcript for the program as provided by the White House. Excerpt and video below:
MR. LENO: And that was it. Big change?
MR. OBAMA: You know, I was mentioning earlier, we landed yesterday and then –- this is an example of life in the bubble. We landed at the fairground down in Costa Mesa. And I see the fairground where I think we're having this town hall and I said, well, why don't we walk over there? Secret Service says, no, sir, it's 750 yards. (Laughter.)
So I was trying to calculate –- well, that's like a five-minute walk? "Yes, sir. Sorry." (Laughter.)
Now, they let me walk on the way back. But, you know, the doctor is behind me with the defibrillator. (Laughter.)
MR. LENO: Wow.
MR. OBAMA: Michelle jokes about how our motorcade –- you know, we've got the ambulance and then the caboose and then the dog sled. (Laughter.) The submarine. (Laughter.) There's a whole bunch of stuff going on.
MR. LENO: Now it's only, what, 59 days now, right?
MR. OBAMA: Yes, 59 days.
MR. LENO: And so much scrutiny. Is it fair to judge so quickly? I mean –-
MR. OBAMA: Well, look, we are going through a difficult time. I welcome the challenge. You know, I ran for President because I thought we needed big changes. I do think in Washington it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell. (Laughter.)
MR. LENO: Wow. Wow. That's rough. (Applause.)
MR. OBAMA: Everybody's got an opinion. But that's part of what makes for a democracy. You know, it's contentious and people are hitting back.
I do think, though, that the American people are all in a place where they understand it took us a while to get into this mess, it's going to take a while for us to get out of it. And if they have confidence that I'm making steps to deal with issues like health care and energy and education, that matter deeply to their daily lives, then I think they're going to give us some time. (Applause.)
MR. LENO: Let me ask you about this. I know you are angry –- because, you know, doing what I do, you kind of study body language a little bit. And you looked very angry about these bonuses. Actually, stunned.
MR. OBAMA: Stunned. "Stunned" is the word.
MR. LENO: Tell people what happened. I know people have been over it, just –-
MR. OBAMA: Well, look, here's what happened. You've got a company, AIG, which used to be just a regular, old insurance company. Then they insured a whole bunch of stuff and they were very profitable and it was a good, solid company.
Then they decided –- some smart person decided, let's put a hedge fund on top of the insurance company and let's sell these derivative products to banks all around the world –- which are basically guarantees or insurance policies on all these sub-prime mortgages.
And this smart person said, you know, none of these things are going to go bust; this sub-prime thing, it's a great deal, you can make a lot of profit. So they sold a whole bunch of them –- billions and billions of dollars. And what happened is, is that when people started going bust on sub-prime mortgages you had $30 worth of debt on every dollar worth of mortgage –- and the whole house of cards just started falling down.
So the problem with AIG was that it owed so much and was tangled up with so many banks and institutions that if you had allowed it to just liquidate, to go into bankruptcy, it could have brought the whole financial system down. So it was the right thing to do to intervene in AIG.
Now, the question is, who in their right mind, when your company is going bust, decides we're going to be paying a whole bunch of bonuses to people? And that, I think, speaks to a broader culture that existed on Wall Street, where I think people just had this general attitude of entitlement, where, we must be the best and the brightest, we deserve $10 million or $50 million or $100 million dollar payouts.
MR. LENO: Right.
MR. OBAMA: And, you know, the immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem. But the larger problem is we've got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough, and people have a sense of responsibility and they understand that their actions are going to have an impact on everybody. And if we can get back to those values that built America, then I think we're going to be okay.