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The Government Still Doesn’t Get Tech, but at Least Obama Tried

His presidency will end, yet the GIFs will live on

Getty Images
Getty Images

You might recall a certain 24 hours in February 2015 when the internet was awash in GIFs of President Obama doing very GIF-able things. He slid on sunglasses and vogued in the mirror, he mimicked the crazy face emoji, he quoted Kim Kardashian’s beloved “Can I live?!?!” tweet, and he became the first sitting president to use a selfie stick. It was indisputably Good Internet — and from the same man who controls our nuclear codes, no less.

Ostensibly, the commander-in-chief’s mugging was done in the name of promoting the revamped Healthcare.gov to BuzzFeed’s massive audience. But it was also the beginning of a subtle campaign to shape his legacy as the first internet-fluent president. Yes, a viral video would likely sear the February 15 healthcare sign-up deadline into as many young minds as possible, as evidenced by his Between Two Ferns cameo. But his press office clearly knew that his ability to star in a viral video with such impressive tact would earn him a special kind of internet cred.

Obama’s legacy-makers seem especially keen on collecting those gold stars in the final days of his presidency. His last term has been stacked with mini campaigns to demonstrate his eye for innovation and mastery of social media. On top of his BuzzFeed premiere, he has hosted a White House #DemoDay (an event typically associated with Silicon Valley seed accelerators), Instagrammed his way through a trip to Alaska’s Arctic, Snapchatted from the Oval Office to hype the State of the Union, headlined the South by Southwest festival with his wife, announced the White House would have its own “South by South Lawn” in October, overseen the expansion of internet access to remote places like Cuba, and partnered with Oculus to host a virtual reality tour of Yosemite. In late August, Wired announced that the president would guest-edit a “completely bespoke” November issue, focusing “on the future — on the next hurdles that humanity will need to overcome to move forward.” Basically, he’ll be using the country’s most prominent technology magazine to discuss how to fix America’s problems the same month that the United States will pick his replacement. There aren’t many better ways to say: “I called this tech thing first.”

That Obama has chosen to intertwine his legacy with the innovative change that occurred during his presidency is understandable. To ignore it would essentially be a failure of his administration (not to mention a missed opportunity for a lot of free press on The Verge). But even if the president has done well to align himself with a new landscape of data science, precision medicine, cybersecurity, and social media, the government that he has overseen for the past seven-plus years has not always been there with him.

Herein lies the contradiction of Obama’s aim to be known as our first truly tech-savvy, Fitbit Surge–wearing, robot-teleconferencing president. Despite his declared interest in technology, he is ultimately the head of a lethargic and inefficient government that as recently as this summer still assigned its employees BlackBerrys as work phones. There was a clear moment in Obama’s presidency when he addressed this tension head-on. After the disastrous 2013 launch of Healthcare.gov, the public portal 55 contractors created to access Obama’s much-hyped healthcare plan, he began personally recruiting high-profile technologists from Silicon Valley to act as website EMTs. That staff eventually grew larger — adding prestigious names from Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Medium — and its goals, more broad. Once the site was relaunched, he put his crew of techies to work searching for other parts of the sprawling bureaucratic system to be fixed. They’ve revamped the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, launched a program to disrupt the criminal justice system, and partnered with private companies like Kickstarter, Instacart, and Jet to tackle issues like refugee care and diaper prices (among many other things). At the same time, glowing profiles from publications like Fast Company and Wired rolled in. Obama had managed to launch a nameless “startup” of 140 people within the White House.

The reality is, no matter how many excellent data science and IT specialists Obama was able to scoop up and sprinkle around Washington, D.C., most government offices have struggled to keep up with even the most basic tech problems. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management was hacked last summer, exposing the Social Security numbers of 21.5 million people. The FBI flubbed its high-profile investigation of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone by mistakenly resetting his iCloud password, then demanded that Apple help it anyway. For god’s sake, the Pentagon still uses 1970s-era floppy disks to run its nuclear program.

To be sure, Obama has brought a lot of attention to the ways that technology can help government, even if he wasn’t the superhuman savior that particular problem needed. As his second term comes to a close, it’s clear he’s the first president to really “get” the importance of innovation, and the powerful communication platform that is the internet in the same way digital-fluent Americans do. So, if the best way to help the American people remember that is for him to strap on a VR headset for a photo-op, so be it. As long as we get a meme or two out of it, we’ll be more than satisfied.