COSTA MESA, Calif. — In Washington, President Barack Obama is the ultimate insider, hosting White House parties to woo lawmakers and diplomats. Elsewhere, he increasingly plays the embattled and populist crusader, helping average Americans fight entrenched interests on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
On Wednesday, Obama donned that cloak in Southern California, where he said the weather and conversations are much nicer than in Washington. The conversation was more one-sided, to be sure, as he stood before 1,300 frequently cheering people, 2,500 miles from the Capitol's shadow.
He defended his ambitious plan to overhaul health care, energy, education, taxes and spending policies in the coming months, against unnamed forces aligned against him.
"I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should focus on only one problem at a time: 'our problem,'" Obama said. "But that's just not the way it works."
"You don't get to choose between paying your mortgage bills or your medical bills," he told the crowd in a hot auditorium. The government, too, must tackle multiple challenges at once, he said.
Obama spoke for 21 minutes, then took eight questions. The first: Will he seek re-election in 2012?
"If I could get done what I think needs to get done in four years, even if it meant that I was only president for four years, I would rather be a good president — to take on the tough issues for four years — than a mediocre president for eight years," Obama said.
There were other whiffs of self-sacrifice. Referring to the uproar over bonuses paid to executives of the largely nationalized AIG insurance company, Obama said: "I know Washington's all in a tizzy, and everybody's pointing fingers at each other and saying, 'It's their fault, the Democrats' fault, the Republicans' fault.' Listen, I'll take responsibility. I'm the president."
In the same breath, he said, "We didn't draft these contracts." But he added, "It is appropriate when you're in charge to make sure that stuff doesn't happen like this."
Obama tried to head off questions about AIG by saying he understood taxpayers' anger. And he tried to broaden the issue, which has vexed his young administration.
"These bonuses, outrageous as they are, are a symptom of a much larger problem," he said. It's "a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk."
In fact, no one asked Obama about AIG. The questions focused on jobs, schools, unions' rights and other issues that are easier for him to handle.
One little curve ball came, however, on a topic Obama rarely mentions on his own: immigration. Before a crowd that seemed divided on the emotional, politically dangerous issue, Obama said he still supports "comprehensive immigration reform."
The nation must find a way, he said, to strengthen its borders while also giving about 12 million illegal immigrants a path to possible citizenship.
"People who have been here for a long time and put down roots," he said, should have "a mechanism over time to get out of the shadows" and achieve legal status, including citizenship.
They would have to learn English, pay a significant fine and "go to the back of the line" of those applying for legal entry, he said.
Former President George W. Bush backed a similar immigration program. But it died in Congress amid heavy criticisms, especially from those saying too many illegal immigrants have been allowed to enter the country.
Obama visited the Los Angeles area Wednesday to promote his $787 billion economic stimulus and to tape an appearance Thursday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."