High Tech and High Fashion as Obama Woos Silicon Valley Leaders

BY Spencer Michels  February 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM EST

President Barack Obama talks with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg; Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg; White House photo by Pete Souza

The splashy news out of President Obama’s trip to the high-tech haunts in the West is that the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, did not wear a hoodie when he met with this president.

Zuckerberg — somewhat of a folk hero (or an anti-hero), especially after he was portrayed, hoodie and all, in “The Social Network” — wore a dark suit at a dinner hosted by venture capitalist John Doerr at his estate in Woodside — an expensive Silicon Valley suburb. Also at the dinner was Steve Jobs, who stepped down last month as head of Apple on another medical leave. He wore his trademark black.

President Barack Obama joins a toast with Technology Business Leaders; Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama joins a toast with technology business leaders; White House photo by Pete Souza

Aside from the above social notes, there was some actual substance to the president’s trip — and some controversy. Mr. Obama’s apparent idea was to push his emphasis on innovation and job development by showing interest in Silicon Valley, the technological powerhouse where research and development of all things computer and Internet have spurred the national economy, at least until recently.

The Valley — as its denizens call it — became a national high-tech center when the federal government started pouring money into projects like the moon shot and biotechnology, to say nothing of weapons development for the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Everybody needed chips, says Russell Hancock of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network:

“That’s what built this valley, and more recently that funding has trailed off. And it’s a concern. We’re actually deeply concerned about it.”

Hancock’s concern is also that of the president, who has proposed subsidies for innovations, tax credits for research and development, more money for math and science teaching, and federal emphasis on biomedical and clean energy. But spending money even on those kinds of projects is controversial these days, with Republicans and others calling for federal austerity. So it’s no cinch that Mr. Obama will get the funding to spur the innovation that he figures will create jobs and help the ailing economy.

That debate is going on in the heart of Silicon Valley, as well as in Congress. Entrepreneurs like T.J. Rodgers, who founded and runs Cypress Semiconductor, argue that federal money is unnecessary and actually hurtful to the job-creating engine that the Valley has traditionally been. I asked him what message he had for the president, who touched down on his turf:

You need to wake up and get it. You’re doing politics as usual. You want to tax and spend, so what you do is give some of the pork to some California companies, come out and tell their CEOs what they’re going to get, and hope you’re going to get support because people get something from the government. That’s not what we need. What we need is to stop spending, stop taxing because inevitably the economy and jobs aren’t going to recover until the government gets back to the size it needs to be. So it’s politics as usual and frankly it’s very disappointing.

Standing in contrast to T.J. Rodgers are those CEOs who did meet with Mr. Obama. But they were an elusive lot, even though they generally support the president in the debate over the federal role in tech. For a NewsHour story on the president’s visit, we contacted three of those invited the exclusive dinner. All seemed interested in talking to us until they “checked” with somebody and then all declined to be interviewed on the topic of the day. That was a little disappointing for us since the purpose of the presidential trip was to focus on Mr. Obama’s high-tech agenda.

Meanwhile, according to a new report, Silicon Valley is doing slightly better than last year, with high-tech employment up a bit. But things are not quite rosy in the land of fruit trees and microprocessors, and many tech leaders believe that how the Obama initiatives play out could have a major effect on the health of the Valley … and the nation.