I couldn't believe (almost) that President Obama got so worked up over the AIG bonuses and promised to try to reverse them. Pardon me if it looks like pure populist pandering to me, and far beneath him -- as if any pandering is below any politician.
Of course I was opposed to "rescuing" AIG with taxpayer money in the first place, and it seems pretty apparent that it hasn't worked. And on the general "he who pays the piper calls the tune" principle, the government, having funneled billions, might seem to have a legitimate interest in telling AIG how to run its business. Specifically, however, as I understand it not all of AIG is unprofitable; some branches of the company are still quite profitable. And some of their executives had contractual arrangements prior to the bailout to the effect that if they performed to certain standards they would get bonuses. Even Tim Geithner and Larry Summers acknowledged that there were valid contractual arrangements that the government didn't have the power to void -- especially since that kind of micromanagement wasn't written into the TARP bill that was used to bail out AIG (differently from the way TARP was sold, if you want to talk about at least implied contractual arrangements). So the government doesn't seem to have any legal leverage here.
All that said, it would have been far preferable if at least a few AIG executives had said that considering the bailout and the predictable public perception, that they weren't going to take the bonuses. But we seem to live in a culture in which adhering to the letter of the law is considered the same as being moral, which is hardly the case -- indeed, a case can be made that the opposite is true. So Obama had his populist moment delivered to him on a silver platter.