Bush makes nice with tech leaders

U.S. President George W. Bush demonstrated Wednesday why so many high-tech industry leaders support him despite his seemingly total lack of interest in technology-specific policy issues.

In a short speech to more than a hundred industry executives visiting the White House, Bush emphasized his top priorities of tax cuts and education reform and praised technology companies for aiding the economy, but he broke no new ground on other policy issues. Instead, he offered to listen closely to the industry’s positions.

“You’ve done so much for your country, it’s time for your country to do something for you,” Bush said, in a reversal of the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address.

Bush also played the role of industry cheerleader at a time when concerns about the slowing economy have hammered the stock prices of most technology companies.

“The accomplishments of the industry are rock solid,” Bush said. “The future is incredibly bright. All the difficulties you face today really don’t cloud a future that is so optimistic and bright.”

After touting his income tax and education-reform proposals, Bush pledged to support a permanent extension of the R&D tax credit as well as legislation moving through Congress to relax export limits on high-speed computers.

And then, like a good chairman of the board, Bush left the room so that the executives could spend two hours talking behind closed doors to the top policymakers in his administration, including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Participants in the closed sessions said each secretary made a short presentation, including pleas to the industry to help them make their agencies more efficient. Commerce Secretary Evans, who has been Bush’s most visible representative to the tech community, told the executives that the White House wanted their input on many upcoming policy issues, such as the Internet tax moratorium and trade negotiations.

“It was very positive,” said Cisco Systems (CSCO) ‘ top lobbyist, Laura Ipsen. “It sends a clear signal that there is more than one person and more than one agency that care about technology in this administration.”

The White House solicited input from tech companies before the gathering, sending out questionnaires seeking comment about various issues at the top of the industry’s agenda, such as privacy protection and broadband regulation.

Attendees at Wednesday’s meeting included Microsoft (MSFT) COO Bob Herbold, AOL Time Warner (AOL) executive vice-president George Vradenburg and former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale.

Herbold, a major contributor to the Republican party last year, told reporters after Bush’s speech that companies like his were quite pleased with what they have heard from the new administration so far.

“We’re constantly being invited to the White House to give our views,” Herbold said. “We feel very good as an industry that the administration is reaching out and wanting to talk about these issues.”

Herbold said antitrust issues and the government’s pending case against his company, however, were not discussed.

Venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme also attended Wednesday’s meeting, scoring a front-row seat for Bush’s East Room speech. Bush announced that he was appointing Kvamme to co-chair the President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, an advisory body on technology policy issues.

“[Kvamme] understands risk and reward, but more importantly, he knows the players – the people who can bring good sound advice to this administration,” Bush said.

Lezlee Westine, head of the White House Office of Public Liaison and the former head of the Silicon Valley lobbying group TechNet organized Wednesday’s events at the White House.

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