President Barack Obama’s keynote conversation at 2016 SXSW Interactive on March 11 in Austin, Texas. Below is the full transcript.
Here to introduce today’s special keynote presentation, please welcome South by Southwest Interactive Festival Director, Hugh Forrest.
Hugh Forrest – Director, South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival
Wow! Good afternoon. My name is Hugh Forrest. I am the Director of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Not me, not me!
Welcome to one of the most special events, if not the most special event, in the 30-year history of South by Southwest. We are extremely, extremely excited to have President Obama joined us today at the Long Center. We’re even more excited that the President will today be talking about 21st century civic engagement and community service. This is a topic that we have covered extensively at South by Southwest and a topic we are passionate about. It’s something that Casey Gerald of MBAs Across America covered in today’s opening keynote and it’s something that we will celebrate on Sunday evening March 13 at the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards at the JW Marriott.
The participation of both the President and the First Lady at South by Southwest Music signifies a timing shift in the evolution of our event where ideas and topics converge in hopes of uniting all industries and cultures, as each new generation comes to South by Southwest, they look for ways that they can be of service. We feel it’s important to reflect and support the message and believe the keynotes of the President and the First Lady will inspire attendees to that purpose.
The interviewer for today’s session is Evan Smith who is founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of The Texas Tribune, which is a groundbreaking online publication based here in Austin.
Now please join me in welcoming the 44th President of the United States of America Barack Obama to South by Southwest 2016.
Evan Smith – Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune: Hi, Mr. President.
President Obama: Hey! It’s good to see you, and hello, Austin. I love Austin, Texas.
Audience: We love you.
President Obama: Thank you. It’s good to be back.
Evan Smith: Nice to have you here. Welcome. Welcome to Austin. Welcome to South by Southwest. Let’s make a little news. You stopped at Torchy’s on the way in from the airport.
President Obama: I did.
Evan Smith: You did. Would you please share with the world what you told me backstage — your order — perfectly in keeping with your political views.
President Obama: I ordered the Democrat. But then I ordered a Republican and an Independent, because I wanted to give all people a proper hearing. I wanted to be fair.
Evan Smith: Bipartisan in tacos as in life.
President Obama: That’s exactly right.
Evan Smith: That’s how it goes. Mr. President, you’re very nice to be here with us today. And you came for a purpose. You want to accomplish something. You said as much in your weekly radio address last weekend. I got the opportunity to hear it. Some people in the room have not heard it. For their benefit, and people outside the room, would you say why you’re here? Make the pitch in miniature, please.
President Obama: Well, first of all, I’m here because I like excuses to come to Austin, Texas. And that’s a good enough reason. And I want to acknowledge your Mayor, Steve Adler, who bought tacos with me.
I normally don’t do this, but I’m going to embarrass somebody – I want to also acknowledge the Chancellor of the Texas System because he’s one of my favorite people and a truly great American — Bill McRaven, who I think is over there. It’s pretty rare where a chancellor of a university system can really mess you up. So, in case any of the students are wondering, don’t mess with your chancellor. But I knew him as Admiral, and he served America as well as anybody served it.
Look, 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. Those changes offer us enormous opportunities but also are very disruptive and unsettling. They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.
And part of my challenge since I’ve been President is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that’s taking place and can help convene and catalyze folks in the private sector and the non-profit sector to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges. And just three things that I talked about during my weekly address where this group, I think, is prime to make a difference.
Number one, we’re spending a lot of time figuring out how can we make government work better through technology, digital platforms, and so forth. So, for example, we’ve reduced the FAFSA form process where you apply for student aid by about two-thirds just by digitalizing it, putting it online, making it a little more common sense. We have made it now possible to apply for Social Security online in ways that couldn’t be done before. Across agencies, we’re interacting every day with our government, and question is, how do we make that work better? Because an anti-government mentality grows if people feel frustrated because they’re not getting good service.
The second thing that these new technologies allow us to do is to tackle big problems in new ways. We had a conference in Washington a few weeks back on what we’re calling precision medicine — the capacity today to potentially cure diseases because we understand the human genome and we understand that a cure for me may not be the same as a cure for you. And there’s incredible research taking place all around the country, but we haven’t gathered all that data together to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And number three, we want to make sure that we’re using big data, analytics, technology to make civic participation easier. Voters — increasing voting rights and making sure that people are informed about who they’re voting for and why they’re voting. Making sure that community organizations or activists are able to meet and help to shape our society in new ways.
So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today. Because I’ve said this before, I said this at the State of the Union, the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. And right now, with all the talent that’s out there, our government is not working and our politics isn’t working as well as it should — the only way we’re going to solve that is make sure that we’re getting citizens involved in ways that we haven’t up until now.
Evan Smith: Mr. President, the theory of bringing tech more closely aligned with government in solving problems is great, but the reality is that the culture of the tech sector and the culture of government could not be more different. Government is big and bloated and slow and risk-averse, and it’s run on outmoded systems and outmoded equipment. Tech is sleek and streamlined, and fail fast and enamored of the new and the shiny. How do you take these two things that seem culturally to be so unalike and put them together in a way where they can and want to work together?
President Obama: Well, let me give you an example of the big and the bloated and the frustrated. You may recall that I passed this law called the Affordable Care Act to sign people up for health care. And then the website didn’t work.
Evan Smith: I heard that.
President Obama: And this was a little embarrassing for me because I was the cool, early adaptor President.
Evan Smith: Right. Not exactly an advertisement for —
President Obama: And my entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology, and social media and all that. Well, here’s what happened, was that the procurement systems, the specifications, the way that software was built in government was adapted for the age when procurement was for buying boots or buying pencils or buying furniture as opposed to buying software. And so there’s an example of an outdated system — bloated, risk-averse, not working well.
Here’s what happened as a consequence of healthcare.gov breaking down, though. We had to bring in a SWAT team of all my friends from Silicon Valley and from Austin and some of the best software engineers in the world to come in and fix it — which we did in about three, four months’ time. And what we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping across agencies. We’ve dubbed that the U.S. Digital Services. And we’ve got some of the top talent from Google, from Facebook, from all the top tech companies. These folks are coming in, in some cases, for six months, in some cases for two years and they are making an enormous difference in making sure that veterans are getting services on time, fixing outdated systems, making sure that agencies like the Small Business Administration that has been clunky, is redesigning itself so that if an entrepreneur wants to start up a business here in Texas, that they can go to one spot and within a day they’ve handled all the regulatory red tape that used to require them maybe months to navigate.
Now, the folks who are working in this Digital Service, they’re having a great time, and in part because they are harnessing incredible skills to a purpose where they know that millions of people can be helped. And what they’ll tell me is that as long as they feel that they’ve got a President and somebody who’s providing some air cover, there’s no system that they can’t get in there and work and change and make it significantly better. So part of my job is to try to institutionalize that over the next several years. And I want to make sure that the next President and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode and we’re constantly bringing in new talent and new ideas to solve some of these big problems. It can be done. It requires some effort, but everything requires some effort.