On Wednesday, Barack Obama came to Google. (Link is to the video.)
The room was completely packed. I showed up an hour early, figuring that would make it possible to get a decent seat, but it turned out a couple hundred others had the same idea; there was a long line by the time I got there, and within five minutes after I got there the line length had doubled. I was among the last people they let in; the second half of the line had to go to the overflow rooms.
I was a little sad about all that; one reason I attended the event was to see Obama in person, but from where I was standing, near the back of the room, I could only occasionally glimpse him; mostly, I was watching him on the screen. Still, it was nice to get a sense of the crowd's energy.
The first part of his visit was a short speech launching his innovation agenda. I liked what he said in it, but it felt a little dry to me, which is funny because I had been thinking it was too bad we were getting an interview rather than a speech; but I guess it felt a little more like an announcement to me than a speech. I don't know that I can rationally explain the difference.
At any rate, the crowd seemed clearly with him; several big rounds of applause. And I did like most of what he said.
Then Eric Schmidt came out and interviewed Obama. After an opening question, Eric started with his usual joke question--asking a technical question of the sort that Google might ask an engineering candidate at an interview--and Obama won big points with the audience by giving a piece of the right answer while Eric was trying to move on to the serious questions. That was just one of several times when Obama made clear that he was way better prepared to talk to Googlers than some of the other candidates I've seen speak there; probably just means his people took fifteen minutes to talk with someone at Google ahead of time, but still, it was pleasing.
My overall impression was pretty strongly positive. I think I liked pretty much everything he said. On the other hand, the questions (both from Eric and from the audience) were, as usual for this forum, mostly pretty softball questions. And as a couple of my colleagues noted afterward, the answers were mostly pretty general. Though in this kind of a venue, I'm not sure how answers could be all that specific if we wanted to cover more than one or two of them--the problems under discussion are big ones, and specific answers to any one of them could have taken the whole hour. And I think in general candidates are unlikely to give detailed answers to big policy questions in public forums; that seems like a sure way to come across as dry and boring.
One thing that struck me, as it's struck me before, is that although Obama's (and other candidates') statements about wanting to get people from across the political spectrum to work together, and about being good at doing that, are exactly what I want to hear, I have to admit that they amount essentially to saying "I'm a uniter, not a divider." And as we've learned over the past eight years, someone saying that about themselves doesn't make it so.
And the fact that Obama says that it's important to stand by his principles and not to become too much like "them"--the Republican candidates--seems to somewhat undermine the idea of working well with people of differing views. Much as I admire idealism, I think a lot of the time getting stuff done in the real world requires a certain amount of compromise.
Anyway, I don't know that any of what I'm saying in the past couple paragraphs is criticism of Obama per se; I think it applies to most politicians running for office, 'cause most of them say those same kinds of things. For example, over and over, politicians say "Elect me, and I will go and change things in Washington." (Or Sacramento, or wherever.) Sometimes they even say, as Obama says (paraphrased), "Other politicians talk about change, but I'm going to actually make change happen." It's a message that voters love to hear, so those politicians often get elected. And they go to the seat of power, and they learn that getting things done sometimes requires compromise, and they learn about making deals and sharing power and not getting what they want, and not much changes because the culture of power perpetuates itself.
But that's all from my cynical side. My idealist side is busy applauding stuff like the idea of listening carefully to what your political opponents say and trying to find common ground, and the idea of trying to reinstate America's moral standing in the world. I know Obama's not the only candidate who's advocating those things; I applaud the others who say that kind of thing as well.
Another thing that occurred to me, watching him speak, is that candidates for President have to simultaneously watch every word (because one misstep of the wrong sort could instantly end a campaign) and not look like they're watching every word (because you have to sound open and honest and forthright and personable and wellspoken to get elected). I would last maybe five minutes trying to do that, if I was lucky. I think it requires a combination of quick thinking, good advisors and speechwriters, and a willingness to slide (if need be) from any question into a safe and more or less pre-prepared statement on a related topic. (I was going to say that you have to be able to do that slide without it being obvious, but then I remembered hearing GWB's famous on-message answers to questions in '99, when (iIrc, which I may not) he often didn't even bother to segue, just replied to any and all questions with the same set of prepared statements, regardless of relevance.)
I've been postponing finishing and posting this entry for a few days now, because I keep thinking I have something in particular coherent to say to sum up my reaction to Obama's visit. But I think that's not gonna happen. So I'll just close by saying that although I wasn't totally wowed by him (as I have been by a couple of his speeches), I do still find him kinda inspirational.