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08.12.09

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Phaedra

WEST GOES EAST: San Jose native Tony West was defeated in two bids for local elected office before moving on to become Assistant U.S. Attorney General.

Silicon Valley Goes To Washington

Obama headhunts local legal, academic and corporate leaders.

By Alastair Bland


BARACK OBAMA is draining the brains from Silicon Valley—but in a good way. The president has appointed numerous locals to his administration, selecting prominent figures from the valley's corporate, educational and scientific communities to help transition his presidency into action and to help the nation through a very challenging era.

To John Shoven, director of the Institute for Economic Research at Stanford, Obama has become president at a time when three areas of Silicon Valley specialization have merged and assumed critical mass: technology, biotechnology and green technology. These regions, says Shoven, will prove essential to the ways in which Obama addresses national and international affairs over the next four—perhaps eight—years.

"These are three main components of the valley and all areas that Obama is interested in," says Shoven, who notes that Obama's attention on Silicon Valley is nothing new in terms of presidential appointments. "It's a very important concentration of talent here."

The list of locals gone to Washington is long. John Thompson, CEO of the Cupertino software company Symantec, is now acting as the nation's Commerce Secretary. Oracle president Chuck Phillips and Kleiner-Perkins' venture capitalist John Doerr both serve on the Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Leon Panetta, a graduate of Santa Clara Law, is head of the CIA. Martha Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill–De Anza Community College District, has been confirmed as undersecretary of education. Never before has a chancellor of a community college been appointed by a president to this post, suggestive of a promising top-down regard for community colleges during Obama's presidency.

Tony West, a Bellarmine Prep/Harvard/Stanford Law grad and former lawyer with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office, is now Obama's assistant attorney general, heading the Civil Division. Ann Ravel, another former county counsel, has been confirmed as deputy assistant attorney general for the Torts Branch and the Office of Consumer Litigation.

The president has given particular attention to Stanford University, appointing several faculty members to his presidential Transition team, which convened during the run-up to his inauguration to help transition Obama's ideals and promises into working policies. Stanford professors Michael McFaul and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall participated on the team as advisers in national security matters. Law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar served on the Transition team's Immigration Policy Working Group, and business professor Peter Blair Henry served as an expert on international lending. Professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond joined the Transition team as head of the Education Policy Working Group.


The SV-DC Connection

Previous presidents have tapped Silicon Valley for its expertise. David Packard took a post as the deputy secretary of defense for the Nixon administration. Leon Panetta was Bill Clinton's chief of staff. And during his campaign, John McCain appointed Stanford macroeconomist John Taylor as a chief economic adviser. And there are others.

"So, it's not unique," says Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a consortium of more than 300 CEOs. "Obama has just raised the bar, and it's very encouraging to see this trend continue."

Guardino is hardly surprised that Obama would look to the valley for his administration's brainpower.

"This is a president who is known for being cerebral, and it seems natural to turn to a valley known for some of the sharpest brains in the world," Guardino says. "People here want to do well, and that is very much in line with the goals of our new president."

Supervisor Don Gage of District 1 also thinks the administration's attention on Silicon Valley is only natural. "We are the global leader of technology," Gage says. "The valley is also 20 percent of the California economy. And many businesses here are international, which makes us a direct link to the world and very important for the future of the United States."

President Obama has also drawn from more modest tiers of education. The confirmed appointment of Kanter as undersecretary of education underscores the president's goals of boosting the importance of two-year schools, a plan outlined in his Community College Initiative, which he announced in mid-July.

True to the mission, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, confirmed as such on Jan. 20, has called education "the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society." Kanter will be serving a step beneath Duncan. In turn, she has taken Hal Plotkin, a member of the Board of Trustees of local community colleges, along to Washington to serve as her Senior Policy Advisor. (Plotkin is also a former Metro writer.)

Plotkin says Team Obama is a tech-savvy bunch.

"I've been very impressed by the sophistication of the people already here," he says. "The entire administration is populated with people very comfortable with social networking tools, who use them in their lives, who swim in these waters. Technology was the nucleus of the Obama campaign."

Though her work with the Transition team is done, Darling-Hammond continues to advise officials in Washington while she resumes her professorial role at Stanford. She predicts that the next four years will see great improvements in early-childhood-learning programs, college accessibility, and relevance of upper division majors to the current economy and job market—all regions, she says, that president Bush neglected to assist.

Stanford professor of geophysics Marcia McNutt, meanwhile, is just beginning a term in Washington, D.C. Also the ex-director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, McNutt has been appointed by the president as Director of the United States Geological Survey. (She has been instructed not to comment to the media until after her confirmation.)

Obama was not the first president to look to Stanford for human intelligence. During the Clinton years, Cuellar served from 1997 to 1999 as senior advisor to the undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department. And in 2005, George W. Bush appointed Gregory Slayton, CEO of ClickAction in Palo Alto and an occasional Stanford business lecturer, as U.S. Consul General (after Slayton donated more than $300,000 to Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns). Bush also appointed Stanford's Edward Lazear as chief economic advisor.


The Capital of the Future

To Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute, the president's attention on the valley's technological and intellectual prowess makes perfect sense given the role that information technology played in Obama's campaign.

Obama would not have won the election, says Diamond, without media applications like text messaging and blogging. Now, from the helm of the nation, Obama will continue to apply technological innovations as tools for addressing some of the world's most pressing issues, Diamond says.

Climate change is likely to be combated through the use of renewable energy technology from Silicon Valley. The "sorry state of the nation's medical records," too, will likely be cleaned up and managed via information technology programs, Diamond says.

Unhooking the nation from dependence on foreign oil, developing renewable energy technology and cleaner vehicles, advancing information technology, making education a right and not a privilege: These and other goals of the Obama administration have drawn the president's attention to local leaders. At Stanford, Shoven feels that the nation will reap most of the benefits of the valley's brainpower.

"All these people assume the nation's interest when they take jobs like these," Shoven says. "If you're an academic at Stanford, and you get appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency, you immediately take a national approach, and maybe even a global one."

But Diamond believes that, for all the expertise that they bestow on presidential politics, Silicon Valley leaders are ramping up impressive repertoires of intelligence through experience in national and foreign affairs which they will eventually bring back home, enhancing the local economy and community.

In the end, Santa Clara County gains a star on its resume and a feather in its cap, and as technology advances, the need for its political applications may follow. And in eight years or so the White House is likely to call again.


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