The president's comments, made with new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at his side, came in swift response to a New York state comptroller's report saying that employees of the New York financial world garnered an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses last year.
Obama's harsh criticism of Wall Street came just one day after he brought several well-paid chief executives to the White House and praised them for being on the "front lines in seeing the enormous problems in our economy right now."
By sunset Thursday, he was serving notice that both he and Geithner will speak directly to Wall Street leaders about government bailouts, extravagant executive perks and a public revulsion over a perceived me-first attitude in executive suites.
The corporate leaders who appeared with Obama Wednesday are not from the Wall Street financial companies that the president targeted, but rather are the heads of such well-known manufacturing and technology giants as IBM, Motorola, Xerox and Corning. Still, they get paid handsomely.
Most of those who stood with Obama earned a total 2007 compensation package of between $8 million and $21 million, according to a review by The Associated Press. Those calculations include the executives' salary, bonus pay, incentives, perks, the estimated value of stock holdings and other compensation.
Obama called the payment of the Wall Street bonuses "the height of irresponsibility," and said the public dislikes the idea of helping the financial sector dig out of a hole, only to see it get bigger because of lavish spending. The comptroller's report found such bonuses were down 44 percent, but at about the same level they were during the boom time of 2004.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke even more bluntly.
"I'd like to throw these guys in the brig," Biden said in an interview with CNBC.
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