KANSAS CITY, MO. — After taking a pounding in Congress over the economic crisis and the multibillion-dollar bailout of ailing financial firms, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke went to Middle America to try to explain the central bank's actions and shore up its bruised image.
In his efforts to open a window into the traditionally secretive institution, Bernanke conceded to an assembled audience here Sunday that the Federal Reserve did not act soon enough to stop reckless mortgage lending that fueled the global financial crisis.
But he defended the Fed's part in rescuing giant firms such as insurer American International Group Inc., saying that he was "disgusted" by their reckless behavior but needed to take steps to stave off an economic collapse.
"I was not going to be the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the second Great Depression," he said firmly in an event to be aired this week on the PBS program "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
Teri Carey, 38, a teacher, said she found Bernanke to be much more personable than he appeared on television. She said she came away from the forum "a little more hopeful" about the state of affairs and about the government and the Fed.
Lehrer, who moderated the hourlong-plus meeting, called the event historic because a Fed chairman had never taken questions live from the public.
For Bernanke, it was an opportunity to take his case for the Fed's policies directly to the American people -- and to defend the central bank's independence against forces on Capitol Hill that would like to make the Fed more answerable to Congress.
Bernanke's job is also on the line. His term ends Jan. 31, and although President Obama has said the nation's top banker was doing a fine job in a tough time, it remains to be seen whether he will be reappointed.
Bernanke, meantime, has been engaging with the news media and public, unlike his predecessors. In March, he appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and, before that, held a news briefing with journalists in Washington. Previous Fed chiefs have shied from public exchanges in part because their words are carefully analyzed for hints, such as interest rate changes, that could shake the stock markets.
On Sunday, Bernanke gave no new insight into the Fed's monetary policy, saying again that he believed interest rates would remain low and that the Fed had dropped its key short-term rates to near zero to boost economic growth.
About 190 local residents were invited to participate in the program at the Federal Reserve Bank here, and about 40 of them were selected to ask questions. The questions were not seen in advance by Bernanke, a "NewsHour" spokesman said.
Bernanke, wearing a gray suit and a light blue tie, was noticeably nervous at the outset as his voice appeared to tremble. He sat facing the audience as he took about two dozen questions on a variety of issues.
Although the exchange was far more friendly than the grilling Bernanke has taken from Congress in recent weeks, the mood was serious and there were moments when the audience at times expressed lingering resentment and doubts about the bailouts, the Fed and the economy.
David Huston, a small-business owner from suburban Kansas City, told Bernanke that he was very frustrated with the government plowing billions of dollars to keep big firms from going under.
"That's very hard to swallow," he said of the so-called too-big-to-fail policy. What about the "too small to save?" he asked.
The central bank chairman responded that he too was angry at the "wild bets" some of those companies made, saying, "I understand your frustration, and we're working really hard to try to make it better."
Bernanke strongly reiterated his opposition to a bill in Congress that would audit the Fed, contending that it would be akin to taking away the central bank's independence to make monetary decisions free from political influence.
He also sought to reassure an audience that expressed considerable concern about the economy, especially the huge number of foreclosures.
After the meeting, participants offered a mixture of comments about Bernanke's performance.
"It was kind of like a rehearsed, canned message," said Mary Rabon, 61, a board member of Communities Creating Opportunity, a grass-roots organization. "I'm sure he was genuine with a lot of it, but I didn't hear anything different than before. . . . I would have liked to hear how banks would be made more accountable and transparent."
Teacher Carey said she wasn't convinced that auditing the Fed was a bad idea. "I have been troubled by the bailouts," she said. "My doubts and concerns are not removed."