California was a refuge for Richard Nixon, a ranch for Ronald Reagan and a playground for Bill Clinton.
But President Barack Obama's two-day stopover here this week will be no vacation. Obama's first appearance as president in a state that was a getaway for his predecessors could instead become a political test as his administration tries to find its voice on the economy.
Obama arrived in Long Beach Wednesday at about 3 p.m. aboard Air Force One. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet is too big for John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
He will attend two town hall meetings, tour an electric vehicle plant in Pomona, and appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." His "Tonight Show" appearance marks the first time a sitting president appears on a late-night talk show.
After arriving in Orange County, Obama traveled by motorcade to Costa Mesa to lead the town hall at the Orange County Fair and Event Center. He began speaking at about 3:45 p.m.
"You have a climate that's a lot nicer, and so is the conversation," Obama told the crowd in Costa Mesa.
Obama promoted his $787 billion economic stimulus during a speech and question-answer session. He said people in Washington too often are busy figuring out who deserves blame instead of repairing the problems. The president said people should stop that and just blame him instead.
"Talk to me," he said.
In his opening remarks, the president took full responsibility for the millions of dollars in retention bonuses paid to the insurance company's executives shortly after it received billions of dollars from the taxpayers via a federal bailout.
"It's hard to understand that a company that is relying on extraordinary assistance from taxpayers to keep its doors open would be paying anybody lavish bonuses," he said. "It goes against our most basic sense of what's fair and what's right. It offends our values."
But the president said the buck stops with him.
"Listen, I'll take responsibility," he said. "I'm the president. We didn't draft these contracts. We've got a lot on our plate, but it is appropriate when you are in charge to make sure that stuff doesn't happen like this."
Obama also tried to offer words of hope for a state facing high unemployment, teacher layoffs and other financial problems.
"One out of every 10 Californians is out of work right now," he noted. "You've got one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Budget cuts are threatening the jobs of thousands of teachers across the state. But here is what I want you to know -- we are not only going to make it through this crisis, we are going to come out on the other side a stronger and more prosperous nation."
Obama brushed off criticism that he is attempting to solve too many problems at one time.
"When you're president, you've got to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.
Obama was forced to pausefor extended applause after responding to a member of the crowd who shouted, "I love you."
"Love you back," Obama said.
Security at the fairgrounds was tight. About 20 buses were queued up along Fair Drive to shield the parking area from the street. Sheriff's deputies used bomb-sniffing dogs for a security sweep around the buses and cars in the parking lot.
By 10 a.m., more than a 100 people were already waiting in line. That line quickly grew. One man said he was offered $1,000 for his ticket but said no, after learning it is against the law.
Streets around the OC Fairgrounds were closed at about 2:30 p.m. Motorcycle officers ordered bystanders to move back from public sidewalks as security increased. Fire trucks were positioned at a driveway.
The second town hall is in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday.
Uneasy State of Affairs
California is home to one in eight Americans has been ravaged by recession, a housing meltdown and double-digit unemployment. The public is seething over $165 million in post-bailout bonuses paid to executives at American International Group Inc. -- an issue certain to overshadow the two-day visit.
With the furor over the AIG bonuses, "If he doesn't have some really good answers, this could be a nightmare. It's not going to be enough to say, 'I feel your anger and we are looking into it,"' said University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Bruce Cain. "There has to be some sort of decisive action."
Judy Chen-Lee, a laid-off job counselor for the city of Santa Ana, has a ticket for the Orange County event and hopes to press the president about getting people back to work.
The economic stimulus money should be "dedicated to those most in need, who need jobs and retraining," she said. "The AIG situation is sad. There needs to be accountability."
Normally, a trip to the Democratic-leaning state would represent a welcome respite for a Democratic president. Clinton was here more than 70 times during his presidency, often to attend lavish political fundraisers with his golf clubs in tow.
Obama, who spent his early college years in California, won a 24-point victory here in November and his administration is thick with Californians.
National surveys show Obama remains personally popular, despite some unease over policy. But recent polls confirm the obvious -- at a time of economic stress residents are anxious, frayed. California is at the center of the mortgage crisis, and the number of residents fleeing the nation's most populous state for elsewhere has been rising.