Austin has held its breath in anticipation ever since SXSW announced President Barack Obama would be coming to town. Austinites know a presidential visit is both a blessing and a curse, an honor and a logistical nightmare. With crowds expected to descend in Austin on Friday for SXSW, in addition to Obama’s secret service blocking off roads, the city braced for traffic delays.
By Selah Maya Zighelboim
On Tuesday, Mayor Steve Adler asked the public to work from home. This must have worked because Friday’s traffic did not meet the nightmarish expectations.
Finally, the big day came. Adler greeted Obama as he stepped off Air Force One.
On his way to speak at the Long Center for Performing Arts, Obama and Adler made a presidential pit stop at the Torchy’s Tacos on South First Street. He ordered a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent “to be fair,” as Obama said after ordering. Adler insisted that this move did not indicate Obama taking sides in the Austin-San Antonio taco war.
At 3 p.m., Obama stepped onto the stage at the Long Center to thunderous applause. Texas Tribune chief-executive-officer Evan Smith started soft, by asking Obama to recount his Torchy’s experience, then they got down to business. Here are the top five messages to get out of Obama’s keynote.
Put your skills to clean water, not cool lattes.
Speaking before SXSW-going entrepreneurs, Obama asked the audience to develop technology to make a difference, not just accomplish something cool. “The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you,” Obama says. “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 across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”
Let’s use technology to make government more efficient.
If you’re main interactions with government are at the Department of Motor Vehicles, of course you’ll hate government, Obama says. He talked about how embarrassing the launch of healthcare.org was, considering he ran for president as a technologically savvy candidate. However, he put together a team of people from Silicon Valley to fix the site, and now he wants to improve digital access across all sectors of government. Maybe you wouldn’t mind the DMV so much if you could get your vehicle registration done online.
When it comes to the FBI versus Apple case…
Obama can’t comment. But, he can say that he’s deeply concerned about civil liberties, and that the Edward Snowden situation made people more afraid of government spying than he thinks they need to be. Obama says the government has been trying to find a balance between security and safety since its founding, and this struggle will continue with the invention of new technologies.
Fixing the world’s problems is up to all of us.
When Obama talked about improving technology in classrooms, Smith countered him by asking about the digital divide. As more of government moves online, people who don’t have access to the Internet are left behind. Obama replied by pointing out some programs his administration had initiated to get more people online, but that this was a problem that not only government can try to solve. “As you recall, the slogan was not ‘Yes, I Can,’ — it was ‘Yes, We Can,’” Obama says.
He’s not done.
When Smith announced they had run out of time, Obama decided to extend the keynote a little longer to give one last plea. He will be leaving office early next year, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop caring or stop wanting to make a difference, so members of the audience don’t have an excuse either. “Whatever your interests are, whatever your passions are, whatever your concerns are, we need you,” Obama says. “And I want to underscore the fact that in 10 months I will not have this office. It has been the great privilege of my life, but it’s not like I stop caring about the things that I care about right now.”
At around 8 p.m. yesterday, Obama got back onto Air Force One and left Austin, probably for the last time as commander-in-chief. Hope you had a nice day, Mr. President. When you leave the White House in January, don’t move to Austin.