Amid concerns that President Barack Obama’s arrival on day one of SXSW might hijack the popular interactive/film/music conference, many film journalists stayed away from the packed Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, as snipers set up positions around the perimeter and on the roof of an opposite high-rise in advance of the POTUS arrival. Security guards showed me the gunmen, but wouldn’t let anyone photograph them. The line for general admission snaked around the park, but VIP and press slipped into the lines for four airline-style security gates—no food or water bottles allowed.
I applied for press credentials via SXSW and The White House, which were readily accepted, and got a glimpse of what the local press goes through when covering the president. I could have gone to the Austin airport to witness his arrival, for example, but rather stayed in the media lounge with assorted press from Germany, Inc Magazine and NPR, among other outlets, until an hour before the president’s delayed appearance. The press on hand were mainly covering the Interactive side of the conference.
Obama had been invited to speak several times by Director of SXSW Interactive Hugh Forrest, who was clearly thrilled to introduce the first sitting president to attend SXSW. But POTUS doesn’t just show up at at a digital conference. He accepted the invitation with ten months left of his presidency—and did not allow himself to be distracted by the funeral of Nancy Reagan—because he wanted to get a message out to the folks at the Interactive festival.
The crowd roared to its feet when Obama finally arrived a half hour late. He started out folksy and local, saying that he visited Torchy’s Tacos with Mayor Steve Adler and ordered The Democrat, The Republican and The Independent. He directly addressed the audience in the room and via a livestream throughout his 45-minute interview by Evan Smith, the editor of innovative online publication The Texas Tribune, who held his own with a president who seemed intent on landing his talking points with the crowd. At the end of the interview as Smith started to wrap things up, Obama interjected, to the delight of the attendees who won the lottery, "I’m the President, so I’m going to take one more!"
But he used the time to get more instructions in, before waving farewell. Nonetheless the duo covered a lot of ground as POTUS challenged the crowd to participate in their democracy. "The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you," he said, "to say to you as I am about to leave office, ‘how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas and new approaches and skill sets to solve some of the big problems we have today?" Huge applause.
The president also met with a group of Silicon Valley tech leaders, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and Hollywood players, including Megan Ellison, the producer of the SXSW Film Festival’s opening night film "Everybody Wants Some," Richard Linklater’s long-delayed follow-up to Austin-set coming-of-age movie "Dazed and Confused," reminding us that Obama is the most film-friendly president in history. They met "to talk about how to make a real difference countering viral extremism," he said. "It’s not enough to defeat ISIL or to take out their leadership or control territories, in a virtual world they are recruiting kids. We have to be able to penetrate that." But the government can’t do that without being accused of propaganda mongering. It has to be people on the outside.
I just met with @POTUS and the first words he said to me were "I love your movies" ��
— Megan Ellison (@meganeellison) March 11, 2016
Will Obama’s arrival at SXSW change the conference? No, it just reminds that SXSW is more and more a crucial annual get-together for the powers that be in Silicon Valley and the digital realm, within and outside the entertainment industry. The film festival was concerned about possible disruptions to their opening day registration, but the president’s visit had little impact on the film side of things beyond disrupting opening day traffic—on Friday morning my Uber driver had to skip several freeway interchanges and wind through surface streets to get to the Conference Center, where long lines of people were happily registering, oblivious to the president—and stealing attention from the opening night. As I picked up my registration, SXSW Film Festival director Janet Pierson was heading out to her annual opening day filmmakers lunch, per usual.
It’s the confluence of interactive, music and film that makes this festival so exciting. And the president wanted to preach to the choir about getting engaged in ways to help save the world, clearly his agenda going forward during his post-presidency. He cited many ways that government helps people, from providing the satellites that give you the weather, to helping to get computer access to poor people via ConnectEd.com, and helping more potential voters to register and select their representatives in a democratic country that makes that more difficult than any other, he said. "It’s easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, which is to select who is going to represent you in government." The Texas audience ate up this attack on their Republican obstructionist government.
The lead-up to Obama was passionate former football player, Harvard Business School grad and Ted Talker Casey Gerald, who founded MBAs Across America in order to help pull up the disenfranchised. When asked what he would say to the president, he suggested that instead of giving the "gold stamp of approval to the technology oligarchs of our time," he should "ask them to save the country. Conferences like this represent a gospel that says that markets and technology will save us, and we have a willingness to pursue that often at all costs, while millions of people are left behind in this country."
He added that Obama "inspired a generation of us to think we can do things that matter. His job is to push us, not to pat us on the back, to think about questions and sacrifices we have to consider if we are going to answer these questions, if we are going to make the idea of the promise of this country real. I hope that he dedicates himself to that in his post-presidency." He scored a big round of applause.
"We are at a moment in history where technology and our economy are changing so fast," Obama said. "This gathering brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes, which offer enormous opportunities and are also very disruptive and unsettling. They empower individuals to do things they could never do before, and empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages."
"Part of my challenge is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change taking place and can help convene and provide a catalyst for folks in the private and non-profit sector to be part of the bigger community."
He defended his administration’s incremental progress in making government work better via technological and digital platforms (fixing the torturous FAFSA financial aid application) and social security systems. He reminded that while he was proud of the Affordable Care Act, he was not happy when it didn’t work. "I was the cool early adapter president," he said. That led to bringing in his Silicon Valley pals as a SWAT team to help fix what was bloated and outdated in the government systems.
"We cannot solve problems in government or as a society unless we the people are paying attention," he said. "In this age people are getting information through digital platforms and the internet, as their attention spans have shrunk. Whatever your field, there is a way for you to engage and participate to take this democracy back in ways we have not seen in a long time." Big applause.
"It’s not enough to focus on what is the cool next thing," Obama cautioned SXSW, "but how to harness it to make sure everyone in the country has opportunity."
As for the relationship between technology and privacy, the president could not comment on Apple vs. FBI, but wants to find a balance between fighting crime and terrorism and protecting citizen’s rights to privacy.
In his final plug, he begged, "We need you. In 10 months I will not have this office. It’s not like I stopped caring about the things I care about now, I’m not going to stop fighting. The country needs your brain power."
And as he waved his way off the stage, he got his second standing ovation.