The notable thing about the technology and innovation policy statement Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama issued today in concert with his townhall meeting at Google isn’t the message. Despite the ohh-ing and ahh-ing over the possible appointment of a “chief technology officer” for the country, there’s really nothing too startling in its 9 dense pages. What is surprising is the fact that the thing actually got written in the first place.
That’s not a statement about the busy nature of campaigns. It’s more a comment on Obama’s interest in wooing an important group of voters: young, tech-savvy and pretty well disgusted by politicians ignorant of their day-to-day lives. If there were a sign that the Obama campaign is taking the California presidential primary seriously, this is it.
Now, Iet’s be realistic. There is no way on God’s green earth that Barack Obama himself sat down and decided that the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband should be up from 200 kps to something more in keeping with the traffic capacity on today’s phone and cable networks (and no, netboy, the new definition will not be 1 gbps so you can get practically free BitTorrent). And the Senator from Illinois uses very careful language to talk about the much-abused and poorly understood concept of “net neutrality.” In other words, this document was written by someone – not named Obama – who knows where the land mines are buried in intra-Geek wars on telecom policy.
Other interesting aspects: The absence of any comment on copyright – although the patent and trademark delays that many in the tech world moan about are addressed. Google, of course, is betting much of its business on changes in copyright law. There is some nice stuff about electronic health records and making the health care system more efficient accompanied, of course, by a nod to the privacy advocates. There’s a call for protections for children but with an emphasis on parental responsibility. There’s talk about immigration and Silicon Valley’s precious H1-B visas but no specific numbers, there’s an endorsement of innovation and intellectual property protection in science and tech but no direct talk about stem cell research.
In other words, this is a deeply political document that bears in mind the tensions that exist between two of California’s largest and wealthiest interest groups, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. It also weighs the Geek determinism of the open source/open government crowd against the more traditional politics of process and procedure that have long relied on paper, hearing and other “real” world events. Obama moves much of that to the web with the usual lip-service to protecting individual rights and open government. But, more importantly, anyone who understands these balancing acts is showing a shrewdness about politics that belies Obama’s claims to not quite get how this Washington thing works.
And in its attention to detail, this statement does represent a subtle change in how tech plays politics and how politicians are starting to play tech. And, for a change, it’s not all about the money.
When I covered telecom back in the Old County a decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission wasn’t exactly a talked-about agency. Even with the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, the thinking on the part of those who ran Congress and the White House was that phones and TV were lovely modern conveniences you could happily ignore until you needed them. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton had better things do to with their time than try to figure out if AOL really was “the Internet” or who was running that Internet thing anyway. When it got big enough, someone would write a memo.
That changed a bit with as the Clinton administration began to look – closely – at economic policy. The enormous amount of money – and the campaign support that Clinton enjoyed from Silicon Valley – raised the profile of the area’s financial players. And the glam that tech gave off in the late 1990s was part of what was clearly a mutual attraction as well. The two shared a common currency: Mutual self-interest. The valley’s movers and shakers – notably John Doerr, partner in the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers – got to hang out with the leader of the free world and look cool and powerful. And the leader of the free world got easy access to one lots of deep pockets and look cool to younger voters.
That’s one reason why a number of folks watching the politics of Silicon Valley in recent months have been surprised to see Obama do as well as he has. As a trial lawyer, John Edwards has no traction with people have been faced one time too many with shareholder lawsuits so he’s out of business here. But surprisingly given her husband’s history, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not a slam-dunk in the valley. Some of this is flat-out sexism. Silicon Valley still believes women should be seen but not heard (Elizabeth Edwards out-spokeness plays a role here as well). Hillary Clinton may be the candidate of “the wives” but she seems to be struggling for support among the men who so happily backed her husband.
Which raises an interesting question. Is Bill Clinton power to raise money and generate attention with this group, in fact, fading? In that case, Obama’s policy statement is a clear throw down – the second this month – for Clinton. And, given former Vice President Al Gore’s now formal affiliation with Kleiner Perkins – he became a partner this week – it seems a few brave souls have left the Clinton camp.
Obama may have started his campaign thinking he’d have to run twice for the presidency – now to prove he’s not Al Sharpton, later for the win – but it seems that strategy has shifted recently. Which takes us back where we started. It’s not what Obama’s saying here that’s important. It’s that he’s saying it.