About nine months before George W. Bush became president I, along with about 70 others, were asked to join an independent tech advisory board to help Bush, then governor of Texas, understand the role of tech in the new decade and help 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 that the council felt should be an important part of his tech agenda. Three months after he took office, Bush invited that tech advisory board to the White House, where he shared his tech and science goals for his presidency. Attending that meeting was a fascinating inside look at how things work in Washington.
However, after 9/11 happened, President Bush had to commit a great deal of mindshare and energy to national security. While key members of the tech council helped push through some important legislation, many of its early goals took a backseat to homeland security issues.
Still, technology policy has been a major issue in Washington, D.C. since the late 90s with President Clinton through the Obama administration. Now we have a new President-elect who, by many accounts, has only a cursory understanding of the importance of technology as an economic driver; his prolific use of Twitter notwithstanding.
As a result, last week’s potentially awkward tech summit between Trump and the CEOs of top Silicon Valley firms was watched quite closely. Despite their differences with the incoming administration, these CEOs needed to make Trump see how important tech is to the economy and make sure he does not do anything that will thwart innovation.
Unlike the last three presidents, who were willing to be schooled by tech execs, Trump clearly is his own man and said things during the campaign that are in conflict with those in Silicon Valley.
He also wants to punish China and has threatened to slap a 35 percent tariff on goods made in China. 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, including immigration reform and H-1B visas to encryption and a range of social concerns.
Although most tech execs do not want to be associated with the Trump administration, others understand that whether they like it or not, Trump will be our next president, so they need to at least make a concerted effort to work together. That may not be an easy task, despite what Trump said during last week’s meeting.
“We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation. There’s nobody like you in the world,” Trump told the assembled group, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you.
“You call my people, you call me. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here,” he said.
Trump also told the executives that he would “do fair trade deals” and would “make it a lot easier for you to trade across borders because there are a lot of restrictions, a lot of problems.” He added, “If you have any ideas on that, that would be great.”
Also that day, the Trump transition team announced that Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk joined the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum. The 16-member group—which also includes IBM CEO Ginni Rommety and GM CEO Mary Barra—”will be called upon to meet with the President frequently to share their specific experience and knowledge as the President implements his economic agenda.”
Since I have a bit of first-hand knowledge of the importance of tech advisors to a presidential administration, I truly hope this meeting will be the starting point of a successful relationship between Silicon Valley and Trump. If they can seriously get his ear and influence his thinking and policies so that they are pro-tech, Trump could actually become a friend of Silicon Valley. If not, it is going to be a long four years.