Obama Popular In Tech World, Policies Less So

By JIM KUHNHENN ASSOCIATED PRESS
|  Thursday, May 8, 2014  |  Updated 3:52 PM PDT
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Silicon Valley recoils at the government's cyber data-gathering done in the name of national security. It bristles at new potential Internet rules. It's fast-paced ethos doesn't understand Washington's gridlock.

Yet, President Barack Obama remains a popular political figure in Silicon Valley, and the wealthy tech entrepreneurs appear willing to part with their money to support the Democratic Party, especially if the president is making the pitch. Obama on Thursday was to attend two high-dollar Democratic Party fundraisers hosted by Silicon Valley executives, drawing attention to the complicated relationship between the president and the high-tech industry.

For Obama, Northern California and the high tech redoubt around Palo Alto has been a key part of Obama's campaign money base. And it is especially attractive to politicians because it is continually expanding.

"One of the dynamics that people on the East Coast and particularly in Washington, D.C., may not fully appreciate is that these folks are in a space that is growing," said California-based Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. "That adds an entire pool of fresh donor blood into the mix."

Obama's message at fundraisers has focused this year's midterm election and on retaining Democratic control of the Senate, essential to the remaining two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

Before heading to Silicon Valley Thursday, Obama warned Democratic National Committee donors at the La Jolla home of billionaire and former Qualcomm Chairman Irwin Jacobs that even though the economy has rebounded in the past five years, the American public remains anxious and that Democratic voters, in particular, may just stay home this election.

"The American public is on our side," he said. "They've just lost faith that we can make it happen."

"We're not going to be able to make the progress we need, regardless of how hard I push, regardless of how many administrative actions I take, we're not going to be able to go where we need to go and can go and should go unless I have a Congress that is willing to work with me," he added.

Later, Obama was to attend a fundraiser hosted by Anne Wojcicki, a biotech entrepreneur who founded the personal-genomics startup 23andMe. The event is advertised as a Tech Roundtable, with 30 guests and tickets set at $32,400 - a nearly $1 million potential haul for the Democratic National Committee.

He also was scheduled to be the featured guest at an event hosted by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Sam Altman, the 29-year-old president of Y Combinator, a venture capital firm that seeds tech startups.

On Wednesday Obama was the star attraction at a fundraiser for House and Senate Democrats at the Los Angeles home of Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn.

Earlier Thursday, he attended a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Los Angeles, which was closed to the media, before heading to another.

The role of the computer and Internet industry in politics has grown sharply over the past 10 years, increasing political contributions and expanding its lobbying presence. Executives and employees in the industry favor Democrats, yet the political action committees set up by individual tech firms tend to split their money more evenly.

So far this election cycle, computer and Internet industry political action committees have contributed about $3.5 million, with about 54 percent of it going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Counting political action committees and individual donors, the industry has donated more than $14 million to federal candidates, giving $3 to Democrats for every $2 to Republicans, according to the center.

The revelations of National Security Agency data collection made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have created an outcry from tech companies whose data have been gathered by the government. Obama has had to reassure Internet and tech executives that he is committed to protecting privacy.

In addition to cybersecurity, Silicon Valley executives also have been pushing for an overhaul of immigration laws, partly to secure more H1B visas for high-tech workers but also in support of giving immigrants who are living in the country illegally a chance to achieve citizenship.

They have also weighed on new "net neutrality" regulations being fashioned by the Federal Communications Commission and have raised fears that the rules would allow telephone and cable Internet providers to impose fees on internet companies.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the tech executvies Obama policy positions were donating because they support Obama policies and rejected suggestions that the tech executives were getting financial leverage to affect Washington issues of concern to the industry.

"There's no reason to think that that the policy making process is affected by those involved," Earnest said.

Among the major tech players, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has been an especially high-profile figure. He launched an advocacy group that has been among the most active on the immigration issue.

And he has been a vocal critic of the NSA's data collection, calling Obama to voice his alarm. Shortly after, Obama met with Zuckerberg and CEOs from Google, Netflix and other tech and Internet companies, pledging to safeguard privacy rights.

The administration has since issued recommendations asking Congress to pass new privacy laws that would provide broader data protections for Americans from both the government and the private sector.

Still, Russell Hancock, the chief executive officer of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a policy organization focused on regional issues, says the gridlock in Washington is hard to comprehend in a region that is constantly upgrading and acting on ideas. On the other hand, he said there is a libertarian streak in Silicon Valley that eschews government.

"There are different sets of sensibilities, there's a different set of priorities and they're not shared," he said.

"We like the president. We want to like him even more," Hancock said. "We wish he would spend more time here and not just to raise money."

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