South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big annual technology, media, and entrepreneurship conference held in Austin every March, got an unusually high-profile guest speaker this year: Barack Obama. In his opening-day keynote address, the president all but apologized to young people for how outmoded their federal government is—while also imploring them to give it credit for all the "great things" it does for us "every day."
Obama began by admitting something not often heard from Washington, D.C., establishment figures like a sitting commander in chief: "Our government's not working, our politics aren't working as well as they should," he said. When the interviewer prodded him with a question about how Washington, in contrast to the tech sector, is "big and bloated and slow and risk averse," Obama didn't disagree, and in fact offered the audience a note of humor and self-awareness.
"Let me give you an example of the big and the bloated and the frustrating," he said. "You may recall that I passed this law called the Affordable Care Act to give people access to health insurance—and then the website didn't work. And this was a little embarrassing for me because, you know, I was the cool early adopter president, and my entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology."
It was a concession even a libertarian could almost be proud of. Unfortunately, the sentiment didn't last long. Within moments, Obama was explaining that "what happened as a consequence of healthcare.gov breaking down" was that "we realized we could build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office, inside government. We did that with the U.S. Digital Service."
See, what President Obama wants you to know is that you only think Washington is frustratingly inefficient. Evincing exasperation at critics (including libertarians, whom he specifically name checked), he said that "when government does great things we take it for granted." His pivotal example: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Government is delivering every day," he declared. "I could find the fiercest libertarian in the room…but they're checking the weather on their phone, and lo and behold, there's a government satellite out there that's facilitating that."
It was a reminder of the difference between people like Obama and people like me: He sees government's many glaring failures and concludes that it's imperative they be fixed, because there are no other means by which society can solve the "big, important problems" that we face. Whereas I see government's many glaring failures and conclude it's imperative we find other ways to solve society's big important problems, since government has shown itself repeatedly to be so godawful bad at it.
But for people like the president, fixing government remains a straightforward proposition: All you have to do is to install a good, smart, competent manager and then get out of his way. As Obama quipped this afternoon: "I've said I could change the politics of America faster than anything if I could just take control of all the DMVs."