Business

What tech heard in Obama’s State of the Union address

Above: President Obama during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Image Credit: WhiteHouse.gov stream

In his fifth State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama laid out key themes and decisive steps for “a year of action” in government. Both soaring in rhetoric and granular in detail, the President’s remarks provided a roadmap for legislation and a glimpse into some of the executive remedies he will seek to continue growing the U.S. economy — even during the pitched battles of a mid-term election.

From the startup perspective, starting from his second breath of the evening with a nod to entrepreneurs across America, there were a number of moments to reflect on some important issues — including immigration, education, and patent reform.

As the President started his speech, it became evident that the fundamental message of entrepreneurial job creation continues to resonate with lawmakers — so much so that the President urged Congress to “do more to help the entrepreneurs and small business owners who create most new jobs in America.” This is a big step forward for our community that should, as the President suggested, lead to “lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home,” “more loans to small business owners,” and more “federally-funded research.” Promisingly, the President also touched on infrastructure investment to better attract “first-class jobs” in “today’s global economy.”

These changes provide the essential foundation of economic growth and a better environment for entrepreneurialism. Moving past the bedrock, we heard mostly what we wanted on other core issues, too.

On Talent at Home and Abroad

On the topic of attracting top talent to ensure continued economic growth, the President once again urged Congress to “heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system.” This overture, as well as others throughout the speech, served as a call to Republican lawmakers in the House that the time has come to pass immigration reform, and that the President, his party, and a broad coalition of allied groups support meaningful legislation.

But immigration reform is only half of the talent solution. The other half is training the workforce of tomorrow “by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education.”

The President laid out a comprehensive and aspirational vision for a better-educated citizenry. His propositions range from universal pre-K to real-world education with an emphasis on “problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.” He also intends to implement hands-on training at high school and college “that can lead directly to a job and career” and apprenticeship programs for young workers and adults alike.

The President also touched on his executive program to connect 99% of schools to high-speed broadband. We were encouraged to hear that “with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.” It’s our contention that universal Internet access is central to educational equality and general equality of opportunity.

On Patent Reform

Sometimes a simple statement can have the greatest effect. “Let’s pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly, needless litigation” is a clear call to colleagues in the Senate to pass the Innovation Act and make a dent on the runaway problem of patent trolling.

We are hopeful that his statement does indeed help move legislation forward in the Senate. While this single bill is not the silver bullet, it’s the start we need — and it will immediately begin the work of disempowering patent trolls as soon as it gets the President’s signature.

What Was Left Unsaid?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the recency of the federal court decision, the President made no mention of the decision to roll back the FCC net neutrality rules. We had hoped for some sort of direction from the President to Congressional allies and the Federal Communications Commission on this topic. In its absence, the tech community must continue to be vigilant on the issue and mobilize a broad coalition of support to protect a free and open Internet.

In addition, given all the talk of surveillance, and a White House petition for ECPA reform that garnered over 100,000 signatures, we thought we would hear something about the much-needed changes to the 1986 law that still governs our interactions with the Internet. Let’s make sure this becomes a headline issue by pushing the Email Privacy Act to 218 cosponsors in the House.

The President’s address painted a realistic view of America in 2014 and an ambitious view of the America we can build together. By working across party lines, especially on issues like immigration and patent reform, this year can set the stage for growth and opportunity in the American economy.

But it will take sustained effort from all sides, public and private, working together. We cannot continue to wait for a perfect political situation in order to overcome seemingly unconquerable legislative impasses. The tasks are hard and the stakes are high, but the roadmap is clear and we must be resolute. By working towards common goals, 2014 can set us on that path to growth and opportunity that has defined great American centuries of the past, and can again in the future.

Michael McGeary is the cofounder and political director at Engine, a San Francisco-based research foundation working with startups and government to create better public policy. He cowrote this article with Eva Arevuo, Engine’s communications manager.

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