2016 must be a strange time to be the President of the United States. As with previous U.S. presidents, President Obama has at his disposal the awesome powers of the most formidable nation in history. His decisions have consequences for millions of people. He is loved, and he is hated.
But swirling all around him, there is a stronger force than any foreign military: the march of technology, which is shaping and reshaping economies, political campaigns, and families in bigger and faster ways than any legislative process ever could. This technology is capitalist by design; it works towards efficiency in all things and reflects the ideology that there should be markets in everything, and that value should be determined solely through them.
And tonight, in his final State of the Union, President Obama acknowledged that technology — even more than liberalism or conservatism — may be the dominant force in American life.
"[T]he economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven’t let up. Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated," President Obama said. "Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top."
That's a stark diagnosis of the problem. And it's just the beginning. Presidential and party fortunes rise and fall with changes in unemployment and growth rates. If automation and ever-easier global collaboration continue to erode the need for American labor of all kinds … then what?
In his address, President Obama put on a brave face about what government policy can do to accelerate technological progress, including a "moonshot" attempt to cure cancer run by Vice President Joe Biden. And he gave a stirring reminder of the indomitable American military-industrial complex, which beat Soviet Russia to the moon.
"That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world," he said.
But all the speeches in the world can't change the fact that automation could erase say, a third, of all the jobs over the next couple decades. That's to say nothing of robots in manufacturing or self-driving vehicles. There are 665,000 bus drivers and 233,000 cab drivers in the U.S., and maybe some labor deus ex machina will show up and there will be jobs for everyone. But no one seems to be able to point to a likely candidate at the moment.
It's not just the economy that's experiencing drastic, generational change as a result of technology. Success in health care, climate change, and national security require guiding huge networks of technologies towards the social goals Obama believes in.
When it comes to technology, President Obama can neither exhort nor command. Instead, President Obama has to be the technologist-in-chief, pushing and prodding the developments of new systems for organizing the world.
So, the President has surrounded himself with technologists, from Google's Eric Schmidt and Megan Smith to Twitter vet Jason Goldman to Facebook engineer David Recordon to Broad Institute director and biotech entrepreneur Eric Lander. He created the position of Chief Technology Officer and staffed it with long-time technology executives like Todd Park, who created a new fellows program to bring outside tech talent into the White House.
The mismanagement of technology—as in the star-crossed launch of Healthcare.gov—can also derail the implementation of legislation. The president's signature achievement only became a reality through an all-out, Silicon Valley-enriched effort to rebuild a website.
Harvard's Larry Lessig has argued that code can be law, but the subtext of President Obama's State of the Union address was broader: technological development can be politics.
Let's take another example: climate change. Early in his administration, President Obama tried the obvious policy solution: a bill that would put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. That bill died in a Democratically-controlled Congress, and he's never been that close to a big climate policy solution again.
So, what's a President to do? In Obama's case, he invested heavily renewable energy technology, fighting for tax credits, loans, and other instruments to try to speed up the development of these tools. In his State of the Union address, he talked about the effects of that choice:
"Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results," he said. "In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average."
Given the partisan gridlock in Washington, Obama has been forced to hope that technological change can sidestep the legislative process, or at least help make his policies palatable to the few moderate Republicans that remain in Congress.
Going forward, the crucial test of any future president's administration will be how they use governmental power to bend this massive, global technological development toward making Americans' lives better, not worse. And tonight, President Obama demonstrated that he's thinking beyond his own administration. He understands the fundamental problems that technological change — automation in the workplace, the Uberization of everything, and improvements in artificial intelligence — might bring for the average citizen of this country, but his successors will have to shape the fallout.