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Obama mixes politics, comedy on 'Tonight Show'

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  • President compliments Kevin Eubanks' suit, pokes fun at Simon Cowell
  • Obama on more serious topic: "The problem with AIG is it owed so much"
  • He says bonuses are problem, but larger issue is people feel lack of responsibility
  • President must be careful not to trivialize economic pain, media observer cautions
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- President Obama mixed jokes with serious discussion Thursday during an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" on Thursday.

President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" on Thursday.

While presidential candidates have used comedy shows for campaigning as far back as Richard Nixon's performance on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1968, Obama became the first sitting president to appear before a late-night talk show studio audience.

Obama complimented guitarist Kevin Eubanks on his suit, and he cracked jokes about the Secret Service and "American Idol" host Simon Cowell.

Obama also remarked on his poor bowling skills, which were evident during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. He told Leno that he bowled 129 in the White House bowling alley and said his bowling skills are "like Special Olympics or something."

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said the president's remarks were not meant to poke fun of the Special Olympics.

"The president made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics," Burton said. "He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world."

Obama later moved on to topical discussions of the economic crisis and the AIG bonus scandal. Video Watch some of Obama's appearance »

"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," Obama said.

Obama said earlier this week that he'll "take responsibility" for AIG executives receiving those controversial bonuses -- roughly $165 million -- while the company took $173 billion in government bailouts. Congress is looking for ways to recoup all or some of that money.

"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," he said. "If we can get back to those values that built America, then I think we're going to be OK."

Obama also said he was confident in his embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

"I think Geithner is doing an outstanding job. I think that we have a big mess on our hands," he said. "It's not going to be solved immediately, but it is going to get solved."

Obama taped the show Thursday afternoon during a two-day swing through the Los Angeles area for town hall meetings focusing on the economy. iReport.com: Nice to see the "real" Obama

Obama also discussed the "life in the bubble," musing over how Secret Service agents would not let him walk 750 yards from Air Force One to the Costa Mesa fairgrounds, where some of the day's activities were to take place.

Obama said flying in Air Force One is "pretty cool," especially because "they give you the jacket with the [presidential] seal on it," he said.

The only time Leno appeared to stop Obama in his tracks was when he asked the president whether he thought people intentionally lose basketball games when they play with him.

"I don't see why they would throw the game, except for all those Secret Service guys with guns around," he said.

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There's some political risk for Obama, according to Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who also hosts CNN's "Reliable Sources." AC360 blog: Laughing through the pain

"He has to be very careful about his tone, because if he yuks it up too much and seems to be having too good a time, it will be quite a contrast there with the pain the people are feeling with the crumbling economy," Kurtz said.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

All About Economic CrisisThe Tonight Show with Jay LenoBarack ObamaRichard Nixon

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