Beyond the occasional shout-out to Steve Jobs or the “next Google,” Mitt Romney and President Obama are not in the habit of citing technology policy on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, technology is at the center of their debate over the role that government should play in reviving the American economy.
When the BlackBerry-toting Obama took office in 2009, he drew praise as a tech-savvy president. His appreciation for technology extended beyond his personal grasp of the latest gadgets: He appointed the first chief technology and chief information officers of the United States, upgraded the role of the White House cybersecurity coordinator, launched government efforts to harness digital data, and signed legislation that enacted sweeping changes to the U.S. patent system, among other accomplishments.
The new positions he created and initiatives he launched were part of a larger vision that sees government as an active partner in deploying technology to boost the economy and improve lives. That philosophy has won him praise from many in the tech industry.
But technology companies are, well, companies. And White House policies on taxation and regulation have alienated some in the business community. Even as Silicon Valley basks in the attention of new federal technology officials, companies have called for more business-friendly tax policies and blasted any suggestion of new regulations on, among other things, Internet competition, political disclosures, online privacy, and cybersecurity.
Enter Mitt Romney. As the GOP nominee, he has joined the antiregulation fight waged by congressional Republicans. Few technology issues that have come before Congress have escaped a battle over the government’s role, and now those views are being aired on the campaign trail. Romney argues the best way for government to spur innovation in science and technology is to create a favorable environment for businesses by relying more on market forces to address issues like privacy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications.
“[Romney’s] jobs plan is predicated upon creating the climate in which entrepreneurs will take risks and start the next eBay, Genentech, Google, or Disney,” longtime ally Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, wrote in an online post for his campaign. “Mitt wants to make sure that the next world-changing invention is ‘Made in America.’ ”
The bottom line is that members of the tech community can find things to like and dislike in each candidate’s philosophies. The trick, according to a report released on Sept. 12 by the pro-industry Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is to find a balance between Obama’s appreciation for the constructive power of government and Romney’s focus on business. “Unfortunately, Republicans are all too often focused on limiting or denying government’s contributions to bolstering U.S. economic competitiveness, while Democrats often seem more interested in shackling rather than harnessing the power of American enterprise,” the report’s authors write. “Each side has to bend if we are to restore U.S. economic greatness.”
One issue at the forefront of this debate is the Federal Communications Commission’s network-neutrality rules, which are designed to govern how Internet companies provide services to competitors. Under FCC rules, Internet service providers can’t discriminate against or block lawful websites, content, or traffic. According to Obama’s FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, the rules will prevent companies from engaging in anticompetitive behavior that could hurt consumers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
Obama supported the principle during his 2008 campaign, but when FCC commissioners approved the rules on a party-line vote in December 2010, they reignited a years-long debate over such regulations. Republicans accuse the FCC of attempting to control the Internet. “President Obama’s net-neutrality regulation is an illustration of everything that is wrong with his approach to government: unneeded overregulation in search of a problem, [which] manages to reach beyond his authority and interfere with the investment needed for economic growth,” Romney domestic policy adviser Oren Cass tells National Journal.
On international Internet-freedom issues, the candidates largely see eye-to-eye. Obama’s State Department opposes any effort to shift international Internet governance from a decentralized system to a more government-based approach. Both party platforms include language supporting international Internet freedom. Similarly, both Obama and Romney have expressed opposition to antipiracy bills that were criticized as threatening free speech and innovation online.
Under Genachowski, the FCC has been working to fulfill Obama’s goal of making high-speed wireless services available to at least 98 percent of Americans. Republicans also favor extending broadband coverage but say that the administration has little to show after spending $7.2 billion.
Members of both parties insist they see cyberattacks and Internet crimes as a significant and rising threat to a highly connected United States. As president, Obama created the National Security Council in 2009 to coordinate cybersecurity efforts. Still, he has been locked for months in a fight with Congress over how best to secure American computer networks. The White House says the continued success of cyberattacks proves that some companies aren’t doing enough to protect their networks. The answer, according to Obama, is to allow the Homeland Security Department to enforce minimum security standards for networks that run critical systems—for example, power grids and nuclear plants. “Ultimately, this is about security gaps that have to be filled,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July as the Senate prepared to take up cyber legislation that has failed to pass.
The White House is now developing a draft executive order that could set some voluntary standards and incentives for companies, but its impact would be limited compared to what legislation passed by Congress could do. “If the Congress is not going to act on something like this, then the president wants to make sure we’re doing everything possible,” John Brennan, the White House homeland-security and counterterrorism adviser, has said. Members of both parties, however, agree on a range of other solutions, which include encouraging information-sharing between businesses and government and updating federal network security.
Although congressional Republicans oppose giving government the authority to enforce security standards, some in the party disagree with this stance: Republican former government officials who have advised the Romney campaign back the White House’s proposals, despite the adoption at Tampa of the GOP platform, which derides Obama’s “costly and heavy-handed regulatory approach” to cybersecurity. The Romney campaign itself says that cybersecurity will be a “top priority,” but the candidate has not elaborated on the broad proposals included in his foreign-policy strategy released in October 2011. In that white paper, Romney admits that Obama has taken positive steps to combat cyberthreats, but he takes the administration to task for not updating cybersecurity policies. Romney also criticizes Obama for not taking full advantage of the resources in the Defense and Homeland Security departments, as well as other intelligence agencies and departments. Romney promises to initiate a review of cybersecurity policies within his first 100 days as president and to create a national strategy for confronting cyberthreats. “Once the strategy is formulated he will determine how best it can be implemented,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul says.
In answers submitted to the group Science Debate, which presses candidates to discuss science issues, Obama and Romney vowed to keep politics from distorting science. Romney accuses Obama of manipulating data to support environmental regulations. Obama, meanwhile, points to White House initiatives to ensure that “policies reflect what science tells us.” On issues such as space exploration, however, budget and political realities have come to bear.
For fiscal 2012, Obama aimed to match NASA’s 2010 budget, but tight money has brought some of the agency’s most ambitious plans back to earth. In 2010, Obama scuttled a George W. Bush-era plan to return to the moon; he called for more privatization as well as missions to an asteroid and Mars. Additional funding for those plans, however, was dropped from last year’s budget, and this year’s proposals include further cuts. The White House is asking for $17.7 billion to fund the space agency, only a $59 million decrease from the amount Congress approved year. But for Obama, it represents a major reality check: It’s a 5 percent cut compared with the $18.7 billion the president envisioned when he submitted his budget request a year ago.
Although the end of the space-shuttle program was planned long before Obama took office, he has nonetheless faced criticism for not providing a replacement program. Romney surrogate John Sununu, the Republican former governor of New Hampshire, has hit Obama for “outsourcing” the U.S. space program to Russia. Romney also criticizes the current administration for lacking clear goals for NASA. But as with cybersecurity, Romney says he would determine his own goals only after launching a review of the issue as president. (The space program falls neatly under his broad philosophy of “American exceptionalism.”) No matter who holds the presidency next year, space enthusiasts shouldn’t expect a major funding boost from either nominee. “A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities,” Romney says.
Climate change has not had a significant impact on the general-election campaign, but Obama and Romney have both mentioned it in recent weeks. Obama calls climate change one of the biggest issues of the current generation, and he hit back at skeptics during his convention speech by asserting that “climate change is not a hoax.” Romney, meanwhile, says he believes that human activity may be causing some global warming, but that there is a “lack of scientific consensus” on the issue.
On the stump, Obama has made the case for government investment as a tool for spurring private technological innovation. “We made investments in science and technology, inventing the products that led to the Internet and GPS and Google and amazing medical breakthroughs,” he said in a speech at a campaign event in Georgia in June. “We did that because, together through our government, we made these investments in basic research.” It was during a similar paean to government as a potential catalyst for innovation a few weeks later that Obama made his ridiculed assertion that businesses “didn’t build” the infrastructure that led to their success. “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama said in that speech in Virginia. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
Romney too has said he is a “strong supporter” of federal research funding. His criticism of Obama’s innovation agenda revolves around “smart” investments. “The answer to spending constraints is not to cut back on crucial investments in America’s future, but rather to spend money more wisely,” Romney said in his response to the Science Debate questionnaire. A cornerstone of Romney’s recent campaign speeches, however, has been a relentless rejection of Obama’s assertion that businesses owe some of their success to collective investment. Education and basic research and development are two areas to which Romney would commit to continued investment, but the ITIF report notes that plans proposed by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would likely cut into current spending. “Governor Romney wants more President Bush-era tax cuts that we can’t afford and reduce government investment in education and innovation that will deeply damage our global competitiveness,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a statement released by the Obama campaign over the summer. Schmidt was an informal adviser to Obama during the 2008 campaign and is now serving on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
Both candidates like to pay homage to Silicon Valley and the Internet industry—sources of economic strength as well as campaign contributions. But industry leaders say they’re still looking for a detailed debate on tech issues. “While both candidates advance an array of important policies to stimulate U.S. science, technology, and innovation, the 2012 campaign has yet to see a serious conversation emerge around the policies sorely needed to restore U.S. innovation-based economic competitiveness,” the ITIF report concluded. For now, science and technology will likely be little more than props in the broader debate: Apple as an example of innovation, net neutrality as an example of government overreach, and the space program as an example of a faded American spirit.
This article appears in the September 22, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.