Obama at SXSW: 'The reason I'm here really is to recruit all of you'

Obama at SXSW: 'The reason I'm here really is to recruit all of you'
President Obama speaks at the opening Keynote event during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival (Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for SXSW)

President Obama on Friday made a strong plea to the tech community to help fix government challenges even as he offered a pointed rebuttal to one of Silicon Valley's most popular positions.

Speaking at South by Southwest, the music, film and interactive gathering, Obama urged digital experts to join a battle to solve bureaucratic challenges such as voting ‎inefficiencies and the disbursement of federal funds.


But he said that unequivocally supporting those in the tech world who resist government intervention was misguided.

"If there's probable cause to think you ‎have abducted a child or engaged in a terror plot," he said, equating it to the charged question of digital privacy, "law enforcement can appear at your doorstep and say 'we have a warrant to search your home.' Some constraints we impose to make sure [people are] safe."

He later said that "if the government can't get in [to a phone], then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."

Obama was responding to a question from moderator Evan Smith about the ongoing fight between Silicon Valley‎ and the FBI over phone records. Apple, led by Tim Cook, has rallied wide support among privacy activists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere‎ over its refusal to create a so-called backdoor that would allow the FBI to access the phone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

Though Obama said he couldn't comment on the particular case, he then offered remarks about the issues it raised -- implying that he strongly disagreed with Cook's concern that a backdoor could result in a wide-scale violation of privacy.

‎"My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view on this," he said. "Fetishizing our phones above every other value ... can't be the right answer‎."

Obama was appearing at the festival as part of a larger second-term bid centering on what kind of government he will leave behind when he exits the White House in January. Silicon Valley, he has suggested, will be a key part of that legacy, and as much as the past few weeks have been characterized by a contentious relationship between the admnistration and the tech community, his time at this gathering seemed aimed at crafting a different narrative.

Indeed, after several weeks of a pitched public relations battle between government and digital enterprise, Obama largely sought to strike a unifying tone between the parties‎. He spent much of his time in outreach mode, saying he had decided to attend SXSW because he thought many of its attendees have something to contribute to a wider government effort.

"The reason I'm here really is to recruit all of you," Obama told the SXSW audience, composed heavily of digital entrepreneurs. "It's to say to you as I'm about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches?"

Continuing what has become a kind of self-deprecating meme, the president took responsibility for the problem-ridden rollout of the Obamacare website several years ago.

"You may recall I passed this law called the Affordable Health Care Act -- and then the website didn't work," he said. "This was a little embarrassing for me. Because I was the cool early adopter president."

He then pointed to‎ the digital "SWAT team" that was called in to fix and said the model could be applied to other areas, including Social Security and college loans. Smith noted that Silicon Valley efficiency and government technocracy seemed like mindsets at odds with one another. But the president demurred, saying there were many issues where the latter could be improved by the former.


Chief among those, he said, is voting‎. "It's much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is" to vote right now, he said, one of several lighthearted but serious remarks in the roughly 45-minute discussion with Smith, who heads the locally based publication the Texas Tribune. With the help of technology, that could change.

Digital means could also help in a critical way abroad, Obama said--on the matter of the threat of Islamic State. The right digital experts, he noted, could help fight the public-relations and anti-recruitment battle on social-media. "We don't want the government to be in the lead on that," he said, citing both reasons‎ of perception and effectiveness.

Obama attributed the ‎skepticism many digital activists and other Americans had about government in cases like the San Bernardino iPhone in part to a past government-privacy controversy.

"The Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying," he said, referring to the high-profile‎ NSA leaks in 2013.

Obama is the first sitting president to visit SXSW, which in recent years has taken on a greater cultural importance, particularly with the growth of its interactive programming. Next week, Michelle Obama will also address the event on other matters of civic engagement.

At his speech, the president frequently looked beyond his two terms in office.

"I want to make sure the next president and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode," he said. "It can be done. It requires some effort. But everything requires some effort."

He said this meant that those with digital skills may have to be willing to turn away from their traditional goals.

"We want to create a pipeline where there's a continuous flow of talent helping to shape the government," he told the audience of app creators and social-media gurus. "It's not enough just to focus on the cool next thing."