Today, Barack Obama solidified his spot as Coolest President of All Time by appearing as the keynote speaker at Austin’s South by Southwest festival. (Controversially, he chose to honor his commitment to SXSW rather than appear at Nancy Reagan’s funeral.) President Obama sat in conversation with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, to discuss civic engagement in the 21st century. The Tribune also sourced questions online, though it didn’t seem like many of them made it into the talk, which ran for nearly an hour, and, in keeping with the theme of SXSW, focused on tech’s engagement with government.
It must be noted that the talk began nearly 30 minutes late, probably because Obama was ordering tacos.
This was an issue immediately addressed by Smith, who asked Obama what he ordered. Obama’s answer was typically diplomatic: “I ordered a Democrat, but then I ordered a Republican. Then I ordered an Independent because I wanted to give all people a proper hearing.”
After talking about tacos, Obama launched into several disappointingly canned-sounding responses to questions regarding tech in government. He began by explaining why, exactly, he was there. Importantly, he used the word disruptive.
“We are at a moment in history where our economy is changing so fast,” he said. “Those changes offer us enormous opportunities, but are also very disruptive, unsettling. They empower individuals to do things they could never do before, but they also empower those who are dangerous.”
He went on to speak about specific ways that government could utilize tech to improve or streamline the voting process (“It’s much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in democracy”), but also, when prompted by Smith, noted that the government needs to continue making advances to ensure that the entire country is connected by closing the digital divide.
At one point, Obama said, “I’m trying to solve every problem,” but that it’s been difficult during his presidency because of the harsh and stubborn split between DC liberals and conservatives. “We can’t sit around and wait for someone else to solve the problems for us. As you will recall, the slogan was not ‘Yes, I Can,’ it was ‘Yes, We Can.'”
Jumping off from the slogan of his original campaign, he made a point of his embrace of technology. “I was the cool early adapter president. My entire campaign was really premised on having really cool technology,” and how that led to the awful Affordable Healthcare Act website. In that same vein, he pointed out that the government couldn’t be the only party working toward fixing online problems and combatting terrorist outreach via Twitter and Facebook and message boards, because “it’s dangerous if the government gets into the business of propaganda.” But he also joked that the government’s problems are also more difficult than those of the private sector: “It’s not as simple as making the perfect latte.”
Obama talked at length about the public’s perception of government, something he said he could change instantly if he were able to take control of every DMV in the country and streamline them, playing in to citizens’ blindness to the government’s importance in maintaining our infrastructure. “We take government for granted. Of course there are roads, and of course there are geo-satellites, and of course there are special forces that make sure people aren’t blowing up our buildings.” After mentioning his ability to reduce unemployment to less than 5%, he said to himself, “Thanks, Obama.”
The final question of the event focused on the Apple/FBI case, in which Apple is refusing to provide the government with a key to access the data of the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter. Obama said a lot, but the takeaway is that no absolutist approach is correct, because if no progress on the issue is made now, something worse than San Bernardino will happen and the resulting security actions taken will be much worse, and “sloppier” than any measured action taken today.
Finally, when the allotted time was over, Obama took an extra minute — “because he’s the President” — and made an explicit call to action to all of the tech folks in the room (and world).
“I want to underscore that in ten months I won’t be in this office,” he said. “But I’m not going to stop being involved in promoting the best, most prosperous, most peaceful, most tolerant, most ecologically responsible America that I can.”