Obama meets with Silicon Valley tech elite

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Mercury News
By John Boudreau

Amid a struggling economy and high unemployment, President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet Thursday night with a small, elite group of Silicon Valley business leaders to sound them out on his economic policies.

The president was expected to touch down at San Francisco International Airport shortly before 6 p.m. and to meet with 12 tech executives at a private dinner at the Woodside home of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr. Those invited included Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

“The focus of the discussion is innovation and job creation and these are representatives of business who know a lot about private sector job growth,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The role Twitter and Facebook played in the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could also be a topic of discussion. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was on the invitation list.

“Obviously, other topics could come up,” Carney said.

The president planned to leave the Bay Area on Friday morning and travel to Hillsboro, Ore., where Intel CEO Paul Otellini is scheduled to give him a tour of an under-construction semiconductor plant that will be the world’s most sophisticated chip-fabrication facility. Obama also will review the Santa Clara chipmaker’s programs to advance science, math and engineering among students across the country.

Obama, who is working to smooth over a

rocky relationship with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has had much warmer relations with many valley tech leaders. In October, he attended a fundraiser at home Google executive Marissa Mayer after meeting with Jobs for 45 minutes at the Westin Hotel in Millbrae. Schmidt, an informal adviser to the president, campaigned for Obama in 2008.

“The chamber in some respects represents the old guard — the Procter & Gambles, the Fords, the DuPonts,” said Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State University. “But when you are talking about innovation of the 21st century, that’s where you get into the Googles, the Facebooks, the Apples and the Genentechs. If you look at the Obama view of the world, it’s high-speed trains, it’s broadband.”

Gerston, who called Thursday’s gathering a “study session,” predicted Obama would do more listening than talking with the leaders of companies around the table, who are hiring by the thousands. “Of the 66,000 jobs added in California last year, 12,000 — 18 percent — came from Silicon Valley, which has less than 5 percent of the state’s population.”

And talking tech with the likes of Jobs and Zuckerberg is good for the BlackBerry-toting president’s image, said Democratic political consultant Jude Barry.

“Obama is better at embracing Silicon Valley than other elements of American business,” he said. “Americans don’t blame Google and Facebook for losing their homes.”

But Orson Aguilar, executive director of the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, a multiethnic public policy group, took aim at Obama for “schmoozing wealthy tech moguls” while his 2012 budget proposal calls for cuts in social programs.

“He shouldn’t be calling it a job-creation event,” Aguilar said. “It’s insulting. To spend all that money to meet with billionaires in a mansion is not a good use of our taxpayers’ dollars. We’d prefer he was spending time with those who have been suffering from the lingering effects of the economy.”

And the Republican Party of California called the president’s West Coast trip a “re-election campaign photo op.”

Closed-door meetings can be a lot more productive than those played out in front of the media, said Betsy Mullins, vice president of policy and political affairs at the lobbying group Tech Net. She worked as a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in the Clinton Administration.

“Hearing from people who are actually creating jobs and growing the economy is a good reality check,” Mullins said. “These events are some of the most important things elected officials can do. You can dive into background when you don’t have a million eyes watching you. It’s a much more comfortable situation.”

Obama was apt to hear support for some aspects of his proposed $3.73 trillion fiscal year 2012 budget. The budget outlines more than $1 trillion in deficit reductions over a 10-year period — 75 percent from spending cuts and the balance from tax increases or the elimination of existing tax breaks. Obama would also increase funding for the Department of Education to improve student competitiveness, make permanent the research and development tax credit and spend $148 billion in federal research, including $32 billion for the National Institutes of Health — initiatives sure to find backing in some valley boardrooms.