About nine months before George Bush became president, I and about 70 others were asked to join an independent tech advisory board to help then-Gov Bush of Texas understand the role of tech in the new decade as well as give him help to craft a tech policy should he become president. Our first meeting took place in Austin and, from that, came various subcommittees to research five or six key areas the council felt should be an important part of his tech agenda.
Those committees met during his campaign behind the scenes and helped develop the outline of a tech agenda he could announce if he became president. As you know, he did and, true to his word, three months after he took office, he invited the whole tech advisory board to the White House where he shared what was to be his tech and science goals during his presidency. Attending that meeting at the White House was fascinating as I got to see up close and personal how the political machine worked in Washington.
However, after 9/11, president Bush had to commit a great deal of mindshare and energy to national security. While key members of that council who joined his team helped push through some important tech issues, many of the early goals for the tech agenda took a back seat to his duty of protecting the country from further attacks.
But the importance of tech and Washington’s need to help advance a strong tech agenda started when Bill Clinton was running for president and John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins and then-Cisco CEO John Chambers began tutoring Clinton about why tech would be a major economic driver. They argued that, should he become president, he needed to back a strong tech strategy to move the country forward with a policy that was inclusive and encouraged innovation. He was advised he also needed to back start-ups and new businesses focused on advancing the role of technology in the US.
During the Obama administration, the role of tech as an economic driver has become even more important and, with the help of a lot of people in Silicon Valley, Obama’s presidency has become one of the most aggressive in helping advance the growth of tech in the US. In fact, all three past presidents had the ear of Silicon Valley and many executives in tech were influential in helping each of these presidents be more pro-tech.
Now we have a new President-elect and, by many accounts, he has very little understanding of the importance of tech as an economic driver. Beside his abundant use of Twitter, he reportedly does not really understand technology and how critical it is to America’s future. Consequently, the need for Silicon Valley to get his ear is important. However, except for one tech exec, Peter Theil, almost all of Silicon Valley supported Hillary Clinton and many spoke out adamantly against his run for the presidency.
That means Silicon Valley already has two strikes against it with President-Elect Trump. He is pretty much tech illiterate and knows most tech execs do not support him at a personal and policy level. That is the atmosphere a dozen or so tech execs will face when they meet with Mr. Trump this week. They somehow need to get his ear and make him see how important tech is to the economy and make sure he does not do anything that will thwart the effort for more tech innovation and investment and not develop policies that will hurt Silicon Valley companies.
But, unlike the last three presidents who were willing to be schooled by tech execs, Trump clearly is his own man and has many biases going into this meeting that will make it a difficult one. He thinks Apple can just move manufacturing to the US without realizing how difficult that would be and, even if Foxconn could set up a factory or two in the US, it would be robotics-driven and not create a lot of new jobs. He also wants to punish China and has threatened to slap a 35% tariff on goods made there. If he did that, an iPhone that costs $650 today would go up to about $800. Tech companies also stand on the other side of a myriad of key issues from Trump — immigration reform, H1-B visas, encryption, along with a range of social concerns.
Although most tech execs want to be invisible and not associated with the Trump administration, many execs are pragmatic and understand that, whether they like it or not, Trump will be our next president. That means tech execs have to mount a concentrated effort to get him to understand the importance of tech as well as be able to confront him directly when his policies impact tech negatively in the future. Given his already somewhat negative view of Silicon Valley and the tech execs who did not back him, that will not be an easy task.
Since I have a bit of first-hand knowledge of the importance tech advisors can be to a presidential administration, I truly hope this meeting has some success and they can seriously get the ear of President-Elect Trump and influence his thinking and policies so they are pro-tech during his administration. If not, it is going to be a long four years for Silicon Valley and the hope a Trump Administration will be a positive force that helps our tech economy grow may not be in the cards.