Obama stresses participation, solutions from tech industry in SXSW keynote

President's visit a coup for SXSW Interactive organizers

Posted March 11th, 2016

Story highlights
  • President doesn't comment specifically on Apple encryption case.
  • The talk was the first by a president in the 30 years of South by Southwest in Austin.
  • The POTUS talk was focused on tech solutions and pitfalls in areas including voting and terrorism.

After several weeks of buildup, concerns about traffic and even a mini controversy involving Nancy Reagan's funeral, President Barack Obama spoke at South by Southwest on Friday, the first time a president has visited the 30-year-old festival. 

As part of the Interactive portion of the fest, the interview, conducted by Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith, focused on ways that technology and innovation can rapidly solve some of the country's problems and how those same disruptions can also raise some unsettling problems.

The talk was introduced by Interactive director Hugh Forrest, who said that the combination of Obama's keynote and one to be delivered Wednesday by First Lady Michelle Obama, represents perhaps the biggest moment yet for the 23-year-old Interactive fest.  

"It signifies a timely shift in the evolution of our event, where ideas converge in the hopes of uniting cultures," Forrest said.

The president arrived at Dell Hall in the Long Center after a brief, much-joked-about stop at Austin's Torchy's Tacos where, he told Smith, he ordered a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent, styles of tacos off the restaurant's menu. The president wore no tie and seemed, at least at first, relieved to be in a city where the year's biggest party was ramping up.

"I'm here because I like excuses to visit Austin, Texas," Obama said at the start of the talk, perhaps referencing the week's Internet-fueled criticism over the president attending SXSW instead of the funeral for former first lady Nancy Reagan, which Michelle Obama attended.

For the festival, booking the Obamas represents a historical coup. SXSW has hosted senators, foreign dignitaries, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. But this year's booking earned the festival national publicity and boosts Interactive's reputation as an influential technology conference able to draw A-list guests.

The meat of Obama's talk, guided by Smith, was the promise and pitfalls of technological solutions to problems. Those included access to government services, tackling big societal problems with technology and being able to "make sure we're using big data, analytics, to make civic participation easier," the president said. 

"I want to recruit all of you," he said to the audience, He called for tech leaders, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and organizers to get involved, especially in creating ways to increase voter turnout and to combat the influence of violent extremism among young people. “I expect you to step up and get involved because the country needs you.”

The self-described "early-adapter" was more chagrined when he talked about the failures of the HealthCare.gov website, which he described as "embarrassing." 

"I want to make sure the next president and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode," Obama said. With new talent and ideas, he said, "It can be done."

Smith jokingly called Texas the "hating-on-government capital of the world" and reminded the president that he was sitting in a state with record low voter participation, which Obama partially blamed on those running Texas state government. 

"We're the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote," Obama said.

In the keynote, which lasted about 50 minutes and preceded a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at Austin Music Hall, the president was comfortable enough to make a "Thanks, Obama!" joke, but was much more circumspect when asked about technology giant Apple Inc.'s current battle with the FBI over encryption on its products.

Obama started by saying, "I can't comment on the specific case," but then went on to debate the privacy vs. public safety issue without offering a definitive opinion on the matter.

"I am way on the civil liberates side of this thing. I anguish a lot..." he said at one point, but only after comparing the search of a smartphone to searching a potential terrorist's home with a warrant.

"There has to be some concession to the need to get into that information somehow," Obama said, but also said that the government shouldn't be able to access private information "Willy-nilly."

Keep up with the president's visit to Austin with our live blog on Statesman.com.

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