As the telecommunications industry shriveled, legions of dot-coms faded and quietly died and hardware and software sales plummeted, the president of the United States talked about drilling for oil in Alaska, shipping off tax refund checks, holding teachers more accountable and "faith-based" social engineering. Technology barely warranted a whisper.
So the clubby islands of technology policy advocates in the capital started their own whisper campaign. They began asking: "Does the president care about technology?"
Like anything political, the answer depends on whom you ask. But almost 200 days into his administration, theres no question that the degree to which the Bush team is focused on technology remains hazy.
Critics charge that President George W. Bush is simply an oil-and-gas man who is ambivalent, at best, about technology. He didnt campaign on it, he hasnt paid attention to it and hell continue to leave it alone, they say, pointing out that it took him nearly six months to nominate his first formal science and technology adviser. The appointment of John Marburger as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy was not made until this month. And many other key people still are not in place. Without a senior cheerleader like former Vice President Al Gore, who lovingly shepherded technology issues for President Bill Clinton, they argue, technology policy will languish and the economy will suffer.
The presidents champions, on the other hand, attest to his deep interest in the vitality of the technology sector. They cite his early appointments of venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme and Silicon Valley Republican leader Lezlee Westine to positions of power in the White House. Bush, they say, is focused more on the big picture — tax relief, free trade, abundant energy and an educated work force, for example — which will help roust the lagging technology industry by enlivening the economy at large. They also argue that important technology staffers are in place and working hard every day to negotiate the full palette of issues, from electronic commerce taxation to privacy to research and development tax credits.
"The president is very committed to technology," Kvamme said.
Either way, one thing is sure: What the White House does — or does not do — on technology issues matters. A White House hard line and public relations campaign against electronic commerce taxation, for example, would almost guarantee Internet commerce would remain tax-free, which companies say is crucial for the continued growth of e-commerce. If the White House endorses privacy legislation, stalled bills will start sprinting for passage, which could, in turn, force already financially strapped companies to turn untold dollars and resources into making sure their polices and Web sites meet federal standards.
The administration has addressed neither of those issues in depth, stating only that it supports the idea of consumer privacy, and opposes any new and discriminatory Internet taxes — uncontroversial positions that do not wade into the debates thorny tangles on Capitol Hill. Likewise, it has not taken a position on broadband regulation — a key issue for telecom and e-commerce companies.
"This is not a president with a strong interest in technology," said David Hart of Harvard University, a scholar of 20th century tech policy at the Kennedy School of Government. "His philosophy leads him to think the government should stay out of it. So, in a sense, the questions will be what kind of crises come up that will drag him into it."