President Obama exchanged Washington’s partisan confines for California’s sunny and welcoming climate over the past two days, but even as he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds he could not escape growing unease among regular Americans about the state of the economy - or partisan jabs from back home.
At town halls in Southern California on Wednesday and Thursday, taxpayers peppered him about the beleaguered economy, while Republicans hammered him as distracted by basketball and Jay Leno.
While some asked about California teachers getting pink slips and student debt, one questioner worried whether the U.S. “may follow in the footsteps of Iceland and one day just simply be broke.”
Mr. Obama gave the man a quick “No,” but used the moment to plug his budget as not leaving “a mountain of debt to the next generation” because it invests in education, health care and alternative energy.
He cautioned others to support more spending on these priorities because, “You can’t have something for nothing” and “somebody’s got to pay for it.”
Mr. Obama, facing scrutiny for the American International Group debacle he called “this AIG bonus business,” pointedly noted both days that the weather was better on the West Coast and seemed to enjoy the reception from fans, lawmakers and even the Republican governor.
“There are days, I’m sure, when progress seems fleeting, and days when it feels like you’re making no progress at all. That’s how it feels in the White House sometimes, too,” he told workers at an electric-vehicle plant.
He urged supporters to temper their expectations, because it will take time “to work through this huge mess,” adding, “It’s not going to be pretty.”
“I don’t want everybody disappointed if we make a mistake here and there,” he said.
Later, in a taped appearance on “The Tonight Show,” the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama repeated his claim of being “stunned” when he learned of the AIG bonuses, vowing that the government is “going to do everything we can to get these bonuses back.”
Mr. Leno steered the latter part of the interview away from the political and toward the personal, badgering Mr. Obama on when daughters Sasha and Malia will get the “first dog.”
“This is Washington. That was a campaign promise,” Mr. Obama replied, getting one of the several bursts of audience laughter he won during the hour-long show. “No, I’m teasing. The dog will be there” after he returns from a NATO summit in the first week of April.
But Republicans tweaked the president for finding the time to fill out an NCAA basketball tournament bracket - prominently posted at WhiteHouse.gov - and appear on Mr. Leno’s “Tonight Show” while anger was boiling over in Washington about revelations of the bonuses.
“This administration seems to have disdain or very little time for the hard work of governing,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, accused Mr. Obama of “living above the store but not minding it.”
But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, called Mr. Obama a “fantastic partner” and trumpeted the $51 billion that California is getting from the stimulus bill.
Mr. Obama touted the administration’s housing plan and new Web site MakingHomeAffordable.gov, and told Californians his stimulus plan would create 396,000 jobs. Earlier at an electric vehicle plant in Pomona, Mr. Obama announced a $2.4 billion challenge grant for the creation of long-lasting batteries and parts for electric vehicles.
• David R. Sands contributed to this report.