Obama takes Austin by storm – and surprise – in first-ever presidential appearance at SXSW

By Steve Winter, special to wtop.com

AUSTIN, Texas–President Barack Obama was about 30 minutes late for his landmark speech on Friday afternoon at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but he had a very good excuse.

On their way from the airport to the Long Center for the Performing Arts where the speech was given, the entire Presidential Party made a necessary stop at Torchy’s – an Austin landmark known for its tacos.

When pressed by host and moderator Evan Smith, the editor, publisher and CEO of the Texas Tribune, the President admitted, “I ordered the Democrat.”  After a short pause, he then also acknowledged that “I ordered a Republican and an Independent because I wanted to give all people a proper hearing.”

Taco choices aside, President Obama was in town to deliver what he considers to be one of the most important messages of his Presidency, a missive so profound that his appearance in Austin marked the first time ever that a sitting president has appeared in the 30-year legacy of the festival.

“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast and this gathering – South by Southwest – brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes,” the President said at the start of his conversation. “Those changes offer us enormous opportunities, but also are very disruptive and unsettling.  They empower individuals to do things they could never have dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”

Part of that message, the President said, is trying to find ways in which the government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place. How can the government help convene and catalyze people in both the private and non-profit sector to be part of the broader realm of the civic community, and how they can help the government tackle some of the nation’s – and the world’s – biggest challenges.

The conversation covered a broad range of topics, including the ongoing battle over the national privacy versus security debate that was sparked by the current legal battle between Apple and the FBI.

The focal points of the discussion centered on three major issues. The first: digital technology platforms designed to make government work better, specifically new online Social Security applications and improved interagency interaction. Obama touched on precision medicine during his speech, as well as how to better utilize big data analytics and technology designed to make civic participation better, with a particular focus on expanding the role of technology in voting.

While only 2,000 fortunate souls enjoyed personal access to the President’s appearance in the Long Center, the keynote was streamed at virtually every venue across the festival, playing before packed houses in lounges, meeting rooms and ballrooms.  The reception, as one might imagine at an event so progressive as South By Southwest, was overwhelmingly positive.

“The president’s appearance and his session was very well thought out, trying to appeal to the tech community to get more civic involvement and engagement in government and working with the government, rather than it being two opposing factions,” said Elisha Dickson of Baltimore, Maryland.  “I work with in mobile applications and know a lot of people in the tech field, and I think his message will absolutely resonate with my colleagues.”

“I learned a lot today,” said Deon Vincent of Austin, Texas.  “It was my first time being in a room with President Obama and having the chance to network with people.  I learned how the government uses technology to change the world. It was a great experience.”

While the accolades were many, the President cited the failure of the Affordable Care Act website as an example of the government’s outdated systems and credited that controversial collapse with the creation of the U.S. Digital Service.

“This was a little embarrassing for me,” Obama said. “My entire campaign was based on having cool technology.”

For those in attendance, however, the positives far outweighed any negatives.

“I was born in Eastern Germany behind the wall and now I am standing here listening to the President of the United States,” said Juergen Schneider, “I was so impressed hearing how President Obama has tried to solve the problems of the government with new technology.  This was one of the great moments in my life.”

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