Obama at Google

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.

7 Responses to “Obama at Google”

  1. Tom Galloway

    To clarify a bit, the tech question isn’t Eric’s question per se. As he noted this time, Schwim wrote it. I played a small part in it, as I made sure to point it out to Eric when I handed him the list of edited Googler-submitted questions prior to the McCain visit where he first used it and told him it’d be a good icebreaker.

    (Yes, there’s editing of the Googler submitted questions that Eric uses (not the ones asked by Googlers at the mike). I’d edit to combine similar topic questions, to cut out rambling intros that weren’t relevant to the question and/or usable by Eric as opposed to the person asking, and to remove confrontational aspects. What the last meant was on the order of changing “In 2004 you said X, last week you said Not X, what’s up with that?” to “Your views on X have changed over the years. Could you tell us how and why you changed your mind about X?”. The last since there’s a difference between Eric asking since he’s perceived as an official Google representative speaking for Google, and audience questions where the questioners are presumed to be speaking only for themselves)

    Spotted you in the back; I managed to get a reasonably good position up in the rafters (and am lucky enough to have permission to still attend such due to previous work on the series).

  2. Josh

    Is it at all weird to have political candidates giving campagin speeches at your company? That seems like it’d be strange to me, especially if substantial portions of the company disagreed with the candidates.

  3. Anonymous

    re: Obama getting partial credit, though it probably just means his people took fifteen minutes to talk with someone at Google ahead of time, but still, it was pleasing.

    As in, you think his people went as far as to get hold of the question Schmidt would ask (or the list of several), figure out the answers, and feed them to Obama ahead of time? Or just that they knew to tell him “hey, Eric’s going to throw you a tech question first as a joke, don’t be surprised or flustered and just think out loud for a minute or two intelligently and you’ll score points with this audience”?

    re: … 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.

    Were the many questions all somewhat tightly focused on IT, science, education, and related issues, or did they span the spectrum? Personally, I would hope that at a venue like Google such a focus would exist in an attempt to elicit in-depth nuances of a candidate’s policy ideas which are never going to come up in a “useless debate”–my opinion of the things which have been nationally televised, the transcripts from which have told me almost nothing and have differentiated the frontrunners very little. Other particular audiences should focus on their particular areas of interest and expertise–if a candidate speaks at a school, questions should be in-depth on educational policy and philosophy; if a candidate speaks to a minority group, they should focus tightly on equal rights and affirmative action; to a group of veterans, military policies, defense spending, impending base closures, and the like. If Googlers are asking questions about the war in Iraq, that seems like a lost opportunity to focus on details that nobody else will focus on. (If Googlers are focusing on particularly relevant areas, then hooray! of course.)

    re: “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” and 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.

    There’s a chance–and my hope–that Obama will indeed not shift towards the Republicans, but will also not shift towards the Democrats. That he could stand in the middle, or above the middle. Lawrence of Arabia led well because he was neither English nor Arab, and had the charisma to play both sides, not because he himself compromised his goals. It’s possible, just rare.

    re: a willingness to slide (if need be) from any question into a safe and more or less pre-prepared statement on a related topic

    In this election season, I think the champion here is Rudy, who as Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me pointed out a few weeks ago has set records for the brevity and conciseness of some of his responses at Republican debates. His comments regularly clock in at exactly 9.11 seconds 🙂

    Thanks very much for posting this!

  4. Wayman

    ’twas I above, I forgot to sign in. (There’s no way to retroactively fix that, is there?)

  5. Jed

    Tom: Thanks for the clarifications and info. Yeah, by “his usual joke question” I mean “a joke question, which is his usual way of starting these interviews”; didn’t mean to imply that he wrote the question. Thanks for suggesting it to him; that was a good choice, and it’s had entertaining results at various of these events.

    I don’t mind the editing of questions, but it does bother me that so few of the ones submitted make it into the interview.

    I saw you after the interview, but you seemed immersed in discussion with someone, so I didn’t interrupt. Cool that you get to keep attending!

    Josh: Google brings an awful lot of speakers to campus, many of whom have controversial views. I see the politicians (from all parts of the political spectrum) as just part of the series. It’s partly as a service to employees, to provide them with interesting and thought-provoking ideas and information, and partly as a public service, since most of the speakers in the various series of “@Google” talks end up on YouTube.

    Wayman: I think that Eric has asked the same tech question as an opener for every candidate since McCain visited, though I could be wrong. (And all those candidate interviews are available on YouTube, so any candidate whose staff does some research would know what to expect.) Obama didn’t “think out loud for a minute or two intelligently”; he gave a specific ten-word partial answer that nobody but a computer person would know to say. (See the one-minute sequence starting at 22:53 in the video.) But more generally, in the past various candidates have said things that made clear that they knew very little about Google and its employees (iIrc, one candidate suggested that we should be upset that the company doesn’t provide us with some perk or other that in fact it does provide us with); Obama’s comments made clear that someone on staff had done a little advance checking to find out some common characteristics of Googlers and some stuff about the company. But no, other than that one joke question, I’m sure that nobody fed Obama specific questions or answers ahead of time.

    Yeah, the questions were mostly not about tech stuff. (I recommend watching the video to see what they were like.) I can see your point, but the people in the audience want answers to questions of all sorts, not just tech ones. And the innovation-agenda speech/announcement at the start answered a lot of the tech questions we could’ve asked anyway (like about Network Neutrality).

    I would totally love to see Obama actually be a uniter, of course. I’m just cynical about this stuff. But if it happens, I’ll be very excited and pleased.

    🙂 re Giuliani.

    Gotta run.

  6. Vardibidian

    Shortly after reading this entry, I came upon this quote: “… it was Hillary’s poll-tested platitudes and then Obama criticizing Hillary’s establishmentarian platitudes with platitudes about change and other platitudes about avoiding platitudes.” From Joshua Micah Marshall over at Talking Points Memo.

  7. Jay Hartman

    I watched the video. Thanks for posting it, Jed. Of course it lacked the fire of Obama’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech, but I thought Obama did fine at Google. However, it would have been nice to see some tougher questions. For example, several months ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Obama to describe the biggest crisis he ever personally managed. Since Obama couldn’t say, “spilled punch at my daughter’s birthday party,” he said something honest and thoughtful. (Too long to get into here.) And I respected Obama more for it, since he didn’t triangulate and prevaricate–and it didn’t scare me away from voting for him.

    I know it’s a lot to ask, but what about Google bringing in a third-party professional to ask a candidate tougher questions in these forums? Might make it more interesting. One of the best political interviews I ever saw in person was in October 2001 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was interviewed by NYT Architecture Critic Paul Goldberger. Fantastic conversation and there was a great mix of questions–some softballs, but many provocative and interesting.

    Anyway, regarding candidates and their promises to change the system:

    It’s a “tale as old as time” (or at least since 1800):

    Candidate vows to change Washington.

    Candidate gets elected.

    Washington changes candidate (now elected official), not vice versa.

    Where’s Cincinnatus when you need him?


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