Continuing his long tradition of being the least dorky president in the history of these United States, Barack Obama became the first sitting commander-in-chief to attend the SXSW film-internet-and-schmooze festival in Austin on Friday.
Which is not to say he’s above cracking a dad joke. Obama kicked off his brief visit to Austin with a trip to Torchy’s Tacos, the preferred mediocre taco vendor of the Live Music Capital of the World. In the spirit of “bipartisanship,” he said, the president ordered from the restaurant’s politically-inclined taco menu: a “Democrat,” but also a “Republican” and an “Independent” taco. He was even aware that his visit gave Torchy’s the social media boost it needed to start trending on Twitter.
The president sat for a nearly hour-long interview in front of a 2,000-or-so person capacity crowd — some of whom queued for hours and sacrificed their breakfasts to TSA-style searches before being allowed to enter the Long Center.
His message: a call to action for “talent” in the private and nonprofit sectors to cooperate with government to “solve some of the big problems we’re facing today,” on everything from civic engagement to national security.
“It’s dangerous if the government gets in the business of propaganda,” he said, but proposed putting tech-minded professionals together to “figure out how we can reach young people who might be vulnerable to extremist messages. You tell us based on the analytics, the data, the algorithms you use on a day-to-day basis to sell products, what is it that’s going to really penetrate here? How can we amplify powerful stories that are already taking place so that they can reach as many people as possible?”
The same tools could be used, he said, to increase access to the voting booth — an issue that particularly resonated in the capital city of the state with the lowest voter turnout in the nation.
“Look, Texas is never going to be an early adapter of this thing I’m talking about,” Obama quipped. But, he said “We want to make sure we’re using big data, analytics, technology, to make civic participation easier. Increasing voting rights.”
The tenor of the event was a notable departure from the political atmosphere of the current GOP presidential race, which mostly involves yelling and punching in the general vicinity of Donald Trump. Sure, there was a small open carry gun demonstration (disarmed, for a time, by a topless woman) downtown before Obama’s arrival, in advance of which one gun enthusiast encouraged his fellows to “fire for effect” if they got a clear shot at the president.
But it was a perfect encapsulation of what SXSW has become — or perhaps, as some would say, evolved into: an increasingly self-serious and high-minded gathering of some of the most influential cultural, technological and political decision-makers of our time. Or, at least, people who imagine themselves to be.
Obama did play some lines for laughs — he threw in a “Thanks, Obama” joke when talking about the role of government — but his plea for assistance from a tech industry otherwise consumed with selling the “perfect latté, lowest price on your ticket to Cancun” was serious.
“I expect you,” he said “to step up because the country needs you. If the brainpower and talent that’s on display today and throughout the conference takes up that baton, then I’m going to be really confident about the future of this country.”
Whether the SXSW crowd will raise their gratis Lone Star tallboys to cheers that challenge remains to be seen.