Obama Heads to Reagan Country

COSTA MESA, Calif. – After landing on the West Coast, President Barack Obama turned and pointed back to Washington – a place he said was “all in a tizzy” looking for someone to blame for the AIG bonuses amid the economic crisis.

“Listen, I’ll take responsibility. I’m the president,” Obama said. “So for everybody in Washington who’s busy trying to figure out and blame somebody else, just go ahead and talk to me, because it’s my job to make sure we fix these messes even if I don’t make them.”

It was a new message out of a White House on the defensive – and it was delivered in one of the ways Obama likes best, far away from Washington, so he could separate himself from that city where “everybody’s pointing fingers.”

In the immediate sense, Obama’s two-day trip to California is designed for take him where the economic pain is intense, and to rise above the fights ensuing in DC over AIG and his $3.6 trillion budget. One out of every 10 Californians is unemployed, he was quick to point out, and the state has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.

But California is also a state the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, tended to regularly, due to its hefty electoral vote count and generous campaign donations. Clinton visited California more than 70 times in eight years.

So it’s politically natural that Obama made a point to visit here early – within his first 100 days in office. But the new Democratic president didn’t begin in the usual places.

He went straight for Reagan Country.

Obama’s first stop at a town hall-style meeting was in the heart of Orange County, otherwise known as the place Ronald Reagan designated “where the good Republicans go before they die.” He’ll follow it up with another event in what was once called “America’s most Republican county” on Thursday.

It took Clinton two-and-a-half years into his first term before he stepped foot in Orange County.

Obama’s California itinerary is a politically savvy move for a president who faces Republican criticism of his agenda. He avoids appearing as if he’s only embracing California’s liberal enclaves — Hollywood and San Francisco – while giving a beleaguered GOP a poke in the eye.

But even Orange County is no longer the Republican bastion it once was. Sen. John McCain carried the county by only a margin of 51-49. And, incidentally, Obama won in the two places where he planned stops during his trip – Costa Mesa and the heavily Hispanic Santa Ana.

Creating an image that must be startling for the Republican Party, the crowd at Obama’s Costa Mesa town hall on Wednesday cheered at the mention of raising taxes.

“We would return to the tax rate that we had under Bill Clinton,” Obama said, adding that he means those making more than $250,000 a year. “These folks can afford it. They were rich back in the 90s.”

“What that does is allow us to pay for health care reform for a lot of people who are out there working every day but are just one ill away from bankruptcy,” Obama added. “Now I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I don’t think that’s socialism. I think that’s part of understanding that we’re all in this together.”

Obama struck a mostly optimistic tone Wednesday. And while he delivered a strong rebuke of AIG, he also stood by the government’s decision to bail out the company “even though it makes you angry.”

“With AIG it was the right thing to do to step in,” he said. “It’s almost like they’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger. You don’t want them to blow up, but you’ve got to ease their hand off the trigger.”

The president appeared comfortable and relaxed, if not a bit relieved, on the stage in the stifling hot room at the Orange County Fairgrounds. He shed his jacket before taking questions. He joked with the audience of 1,300 voters, who greeted him enthusiastically, breaking into chants of “O-ba-ma” at times as he spoke.

Obama put his hand in his pocket and nodded as he heard from a recently laid off teacher and later an out of work auto industry employee. The majority of the questions from the audience in a stifling hot room related to the

In answering them, Obama often took on many of the Republicans’ arguments against him head on. Using a mimicking voice, he’d say things like:

“Obama’s trying to do too much, they say.”

“Obama - he’s a spendthrift.”

“He’s a tax-and-spend Democrat.”

“Well, I say the realities are too large to ignore,” Obama said. “You didn’t send us there to say no to change. You sent us there to get things done.”

The president seized opportunities to exude outside-of-Washington humility. Asked if he plans to run for president again in four years?

“I would rather be a good president, taking on the tough issues, for four years, than a mediocre president for eight years,” said Obama. “Ultimately I answer to you. I’m your employee.”

Obama took some time afterwards to shake hands before boarding a helicopter bound for Los Angeles, where he will appear Thursday on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

It’s his second out of town overnight as president.

As he said in his opening remarks, “It's always good to get out of Washington for a little while.”

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