He’s bipartisan in tacos.
Before arriving to the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin on Friday afternoon (March 11), President Barack Obama made a pit stop at Torchy’s -- a local taqueria. “I ordered 'The Democrat,' but then I ordered 'The Republican' and then an 'Independent' because I want to give all people a proper hearing,” he told an audience of tech-savvy entrepreneurs.
Tacos and Texas cuisine aside, Obama used the hour-long Q&A -- which kicked off the interactive portion of SXSW (March 11-15) and also marked the first time a sitting president has ever spoken at the festival during its 30-year history -- to focus on the intersection of technology, social justice and politics.
“We are at a moment in history where technology globalization and our economy is changing so fast. South by Southwest brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes,” he said before harnessing his inner-Uncle Sam. “The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you -- to say to you as I’m about to leave office: ‘How can we start coming up with new ideas and new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we face today?’”
Among those problems: making civic engagement easier; using technology to tackle issues like climate change and health care; using technology to better understand and combat people and organizations who use it for evil; and finding ways to make the private sector and government work together.
When moderator Evan Smith, the CEO/editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, raised the question of how a slow and bloated government could ever work efficiently with private sectors who are "in the business of sleek, fail-fast technology," the president turned to one of his greatest achievements and arguably one of his greatest momentary failures.
“I implemented something called the Affordable Care Act, and then the website didn’t work,” he said with a candidness that was received with applause and laughter. “And [that] was a little embarrassing for me -- I was the cool 'early adapter president.' My entire campaign had been premised on technology, and here’s what happened: The procurement systems, the way software was built in government, was an outdated system.” After bringing in a “SWAT team of friends from Silicon Valley and Austin,” the problems were resolved.
Obama also cited the government’s recent partnership with Jet.com, an e-commerce startup that will help sell low-cost diapers to nonprofits to distribute to low-income families, as an example of a private-sector effort that addresses a major inequity (the poorest American families often pay double what the richest do for diapers). “It’s one of my favorite things we’ve done,” he said.
The afternoon quickly took a surprising turn when the Justice Department’s assertion that Apple assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists surfaced even though the White House Press Office told journalists Obama would not be addressing the topic. Though he couldn't speak directly about the case, he stated that “technology is evolving so rapidly, that new questions have to be asked. I am of the view that the government not just willy-nilly ... go into people’s smart phones; I always have civil liberties in mind,” he said. “But fetishizing our phones over every other value? This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from the other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect. We have to make sure, given the power of the Internet, that it is constrained, narrowed.”
On Friday night, the president will continue his tour through the state capital, speaking at a DNC event at the Austin Music Hall where J. Cole is set to perform. First lady Michelle Obama will return on March 16 as one of SXSW Music’s keynote speakers (March 15-20), where she’ll discuss her Let Girls Learn White House initiative, which is described as "a government-wide effort that will leverage the investments we have made and success we have achieved in global primary school, and expand them to help adolescent girls complete their education."