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Obama banters on Jay Leno's show

President Obama chatting to Jay Leno
President Obama delivered his message to a prime-time audience

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama has achieved many career firsts. His appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the US marked another, as the first sitting president to appear on late-night talk show.

The seat next to Leno is usually occupied by A-list celebrities who are keen to promote their new film or television series.

In many ways, the president was there to do the same by selling his economic policies.

Obama family leave Air Force One on 16 February 2009
The Obamas are still getting used to the trappings of the presidency
During the interview, which lasted more than 30 minutes, Mr Obama did provide moments of the personal, revealing that the much anticipated First Dog would be arriving at the White House on his return from the Nato summit.

And he said that his daughters Sasha and Malia were more impressed with the candy on Air Force One than the amazing views it afforded of Washington DC.

But much of the tone was serious.

For a president who faces huge challenges in dealing with the financial crisis, the massive audience and reach of the Tonight Show provided an opportunity to remind people, if they had forgotten, of what he is doing.

"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," Mr Obama said, referring to the popular television talent programme and its acid-tongued judge.

Politician and personality

Jokes aside, much of the president's rhetoric was a flashback to the campaign debates, when Mr Obama also set out his economic ideas to huge television audiences.

The president said he was "stunned" at the size of the bonuses paid out to executives at AIG, the crippled financial giant bailed out by American taxpayers.

We're going to get a dog... you know, they say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog
Barack Obama
When asked about the public outrage over the payments, Mr Obama spoke of how the broader culture of "entitlement" on Wall Street needed addressing.

"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?" he said.

Words like these are bound to strike a chord with those angry about the payouts and the way Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has handled things.

But Mr Obama mounted a rounded defence of Mr Geithner: "He is a smart guy and he's a calm and steady guy. I don't think people fully appreciate the plate that was handed him."

Critics will argue that an appearance on a celebrity chat show is not the best place to expound economic ideas; but this appearance fitted in with President Obama's mantra of wanting to take politics outside of Washington.

"Barackstar" status

His accessible language when explaining why AIG was in such financial turmoil, or the use of a toaster analogy to argue for more regulation in the banking system, suggested this was a direct pitch to the millions of Americans who are counting on him to lift them out of their financial woes.

The smooth segue in conversation from economic policy to more personal matters demonstrated Mr Obama's so-called "Barackstar" status, as a man equally happy to play the role of politician and personality.

File photograph of an AIG building in New York
AIG's decision to pay bonuses has angered many Americans

The president cracked jokes about the huge security operation which follows him and his family on a daily basis.

He recounted an "example of life in the bubble", when he was told by a secret service agent that he was not allowed to walk 750 yards (686 metres) from his plane to a fairground: "So I was trying to calculate - well, that's like a five-minute walk? 'Yes, sir. Sorry.'"

"Now, they let me walk on the way back. But, you know, the doctor is behind me with the defibrillator," he joked.

In other lighter moments, the president said he had made time to hit some pins in the White House bowling alley, but needed more practice, and that he is going to fit a basketball court with "better rims" at his famous home too.

Mr Obama also revealed the wait for the presidential pooch will be over next month.

"We're going to get a dog... I think the girls will have a great time - I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with it.

"You know, they say if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," he said.

The president's interview with Jay Leno was not about winning friends in Washington, but winning support and popularity among the American public, on the toughest issue facing him.

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