Washington-With less than three months left in his presidency, Mr. Barack Obama is preparing for a life after the White House that will most likely include a close relationship with Silicon Valley. Officials running Mr. Obama’s presidential foundation have made about 10 trips to tech strongholds in California in the past year as they help him plot his next steps.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of the key focus areas for him post-presidency,” said Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL.
The path from the Obama White House to the tech giants — many of them major political donors to Mr. Obama — is already well worn.
David Plouffe, the architect of Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, is at Uber. Jay Carney, his onetime press secretary, is at Amazon. Dan Pfeiffer, the former communications guru, is at GoFundMe. Lisa Jackson, who once led Mr. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, is a senior executive at Apple. Last year, Chris Lehane, an alumnus of Bill Clinton’s White House, took a job at Airbnb, which offers short-term home rentals.
“This place is becoming an assisted living facility for political vets,” said Matt McKenna, a former spokesman for Mr. Clinton who decamped last year to Uber and now runs a boutique public relations firm in the center of the tech world.
Suspicions that Mr. Obama harbors some dreams of joining them — at least in some capacity — were given new life during the past several weeks. The president’s flight-simulator moment in Pittsburgh capped a recent flurry of White House activity highlighting American technology.
In the course of just one week this month, Mr. Obama promoted new frontiers in space on CNN.com, writing that government and industry should collaborate to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. He guest-edited an issue of Wired magazine, challenging Silicon Valley to tackle inequality and civic participation. And, with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, he hosted the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh.
“I would be surprised if he did not spend a significant amount of his post-presidency time and effort connecting the resources and ideas and capabilities that he has learned about in Silicon Valley with the kinds of causes that he will choose,” said Reid Hoffman, the executive chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn and a top political donor to Mr. Obama.
White House aides declined to comment on the president’s plans for Jan. 21 and beyond. But Phil Larson, who was one of Mr. Obama’s advisers at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, called him “a true geek president.”
Mr. Larson, who is now at SpaceX, the rocket company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk, said Mr. Obama “loves sitting back and having scientists say magical things about the future.”
Mr. Obama is the first sitting president to post a selfie on Instagram, and he proudly gave the Vulcan salute when he met Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock in “Star Trek.” Mr. Obama created the position of United States chief technology officer on his first day in office, and he has championed initiatives on issues like funding for start-ups, visas for international entrepreneurs, and self-driving cars.
A number of Silicon Valley executives have joined the Obama administration, including Megan J. Smith, a former Google executive who is now the United States chief technology officer, and Kurt DelBene, who left Microsoft in 2013 to manage Healthcare.gov and later returned to the tech company.
But Mr. Obama has also angered civil liberties advocates who grew to view him as the “surveillance president,” too willing to continue government programs, put in place after the terrorist attacks of 2001, that use technology to snoop on Americans. A report last week from the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law chided the FBI and the police for assembling a face-recognition database system that contains more than 117 million American adults, half of all adults in the country.
“This president has presided over an era in which universal tracking is becoming more pervasive, not just from intelligence agencies but also at the level of local law enforcement,” said Ben Wizner, the director of the speech, privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union and the chief legal adviser to Edward J. Snowden, a former government contractor who revealed in 2013 that United States intelligence agencies had created a mass surveillance system to comb through Americans’ phone records and international internet traffic.
The public controversy that followed the disclosures emboldened some technology executives to stand up to government intrusion, leading to disagreements about how to ensure data security and privacy while meeting the needs of law enforcement. This year, Apple refused to comply with an FBI demand that the company unlock an iPhone during a terrorism investigation.
Still, that has not stopped Silicon Valley from keeping an open door for Mr. Obama.
Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley start-up accelerator, suggested that the soon-to-be ex-president would be a good job candidate.
“We’d happily hire him,” Mr. Altman joked, “and give him a chance.”
The New York Times