When Barack Obama moved into the White House on January 20th, 2009, the federal government was in the digital dark ages. Even as late as 2011, he was complaining that the White House was 30 years behind. Among other things, Obama was the first president to carry a BlackBerry, and even so, it wasn’t until 2016 that the leader of the free world was finally able to trade in his aging RIM device for a modern smartphone. And, as the president was quick to point out in an interview with Jimmy Fallon, the unnamed phone is so locked down, it’s like one of those “play phones” you’d give to a 3-year-old.
Despite these hurdles, Obama made it one of his priorities to modernize the federal government on everything from telecommunications policy to White House IT. He tackled infrastructure, STEM education, net neutrality and climate change in serious and substantive ways. Of course, the president’s efforts weren’t always a rousing success, and on issues involving privacy, spying and drone usage, he faces lingering criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
But, love him or hate him, for better or worse, when it comes to science and technology, Barack Obama has had a bigger impact than almost any president in history.
Spreading his message
In 2008, the political establishment still hadn’t figured out the Internet. But Obama saw the power of social networking early on. His campaign built the grassroots organizing platform My.BarackObama.com, which was sort of a mashup of Meetup.com and MySpace, with some fundraising tools bolted on. These days, the internet is the cornerstone of any political campaign. And it’s not just about raising money through a well-designed website; it’s about Twitter and Reddit AMAs and Snapchat. Obama’s 2008 march to the White House was the first major political operation to truly embrace the web.
After taking office, he continued to push the boundaries of how the government, and especially the White House, used the internet. He was quick to embrace the relatively young Twitter, and convinced the government to secure @POTUS for whoever the sitting president is. He posted weekly video addresses to the nation on the White House website and even started streaming the State of the Union.
In January 2016, Engadget dubbed him “the White House’s first social media ninja,” and we’re not backing down from that claim. While it may seem like a no-brainer that a president and his administration would rely on the same digital tools as the citizenry, he was still the first. The first on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr … you get the idea. He even embraced the medium of GIFs. (He pronounces that word with a hard g, by the way — possibly a more controversial subject than even the Affordable Care Act.) After Obama, expectations about the how the president interacts with the public have forever changed.
Seeing as how the internet was crucial to getting Obama elected and helping spread his message of “hope and change,” it’s not surprising that he made broadband a major priority. Right off the bat, the president set aside billions of dollars to invest in improving the quality and reach of high-speed internet. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, developed during Obama’s first term, set a goal of giving all Americans access to “robust broadband services” by 2020.
There’s still room for improvement on that front. In 2010, when the plan was passed, roughly 60 percent of households had wired broadband service, according to Pew Research. In 2015, that figure was up to 67 percent, though another 13 percent of Americans said they relied entirely on mobile broadband on their smartphones. According to the FCC, 6 percent of Americans still don’t have access to high-speed internet, particularly in rural and tribal areas of the country.
The growing importance of wireless wasn’t lost on Obama either. His administration quickly put forward a plan to free up spectrum for cellular providers and invested in 4G technologies for rural areas. And just last year, the White House and the FCC took proactive steps to establish guidelines for next-generation wireless networks, or 5G.
While expanding the reach of broadband was priority number one, President Obama also sought to preserve net neutrality. The notion that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, so long as it doesn’t violate any laws, turned out to be surprisingly controversial.
The FCC started with some limited rules in 2010 that basically made nobody happy, but by 2015 the agency and the White House were pushing to reclassify broadband access under Title II, meaning it would be subject to the same regulations and protections as other utilities. In June of that year, the new rules went into effect, guaranteeing that (almost) all internet traffic would be treated exactly the same. Those rules are increasingly important as the media landscape consolidates. For example: Comcast delivers broadband internet and pay TV, but it also owns NBCUniversal. The FCC’s net neutrality regulations say that Comcast can’t give content from MSNBC priority over that from HBO or Netflix.
Consumer protection and data rights
The Obama administration wasn’t blind to the dangers of the internet, however. As the power of companies to collect data on customers and track them grew, pressure mounted from consumer and privacy advocacy groups to put protections in place. In 2012, the White House threw its weight behind an online bill of rights as well as the Do Not Track web standard, which lets consumers opt out of tracking cookies that serve up customized ads. Several bills of this nature were introduced in the House and Senate between 2011 and 2012, but all of them failed to pass. Despite that, the public attention led Microsoft, Mozilla and Google to build tools into their browsers that made it easier for consumers to opt out of personalized ads. Still, the reality is somewhat complicated, since the company serving up the ads would also need to honor the “do not track” request.
In 2014, the White House resurrected the idea of a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, following a probe into the NSA’s data-gathering practices (more on that later). It called for a sweeping overhaul of the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), which was passed in 1986 and was woefully out of date. The proposed reforms included putting an end to mining student email accounts to serve up targeted ads and requiring more explicit consent from customers to use their data.
Of course, as with many ideas proposed in the later stages of Obama’s tenure as president, Congress failed to make them a reality. Here too, though, public pressure forced some companies to take (limited) action on their own. Still, without clear laws on the books regarding things like notification of breaches, many companies continue to act against the interests of their customers and keep the details of hacks and data leaks secret.
While it was often difficult for the administration to enact meaningful reform to protect consumer privacy, Obama was unafraid to use the FTC’s existing powers and the bully pulpit to the best of his ability. And, when possible, he turned to executive actions, especially during his second term. For example, in 2013 he signed a series of actions aimed at protecting consumers and small businesses from patent trolls.
Surveillance and the NSA
The Obama administration at least paid lip service to protecting the privacy and data of Americans from companies and hackers, but when it came to the government, things were a little different. Obama presided over the most expansive domestic spying program in the country’s history. The details of the bulk metadata collection and internet traffic-gathering programs are alarming. And the scope is large enough that we can barely scratch the surface in this story.
Many of these NSA spying programs began under his predecessor, but under Obama’s administration these efforts only grew. If you’ve ever ignored instructions to turn off your phone on a flight, any calls you’ve made have been tracked by the NSA. Even as recently as 2015, the White House was expanding the agency’s ability to monitor internet traffic.
While courts, the White House and Congress have placed some limits on the NSA’s ability to collect data on citizens, overall its abilities to spy haven’t been hampered. That is especially true when it comes to citizens of foreign nations. And while the NSA spied on foreign citizens and leaders, it also spent plenty of time monitoring ordinary Americans and even Congress.
Between PRISM, Boundless Informant, Co-Traveler, XKeyscore and SKYNET, the US government built probably the largest networks of spying tools ever seen. It did this by tapping directly into the servers of the largest internet companies. And in some cases it allegedly convinced these companies to work with the government.
At this point, the NSA and the Obama White House have set an expectation regarding spying, both foreign and domestic. It’s a precedent other countries and his successor are likely to follow.
Space and science
During his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama talked a lot about science and rational thought. But even his own advisers were surprised by how much he embraced science. He pledged in 2009 to “restore science to its rightful place.” By most accounts, he quickly did just that, by naming the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to the rank of assistant to the president. He was not the first to do so, but during the Bush administration, the OSTP was not given the same level priority. According to the New York Times, Obama’s science advisory committee has been the most active in history, launching 34 different studies during his tenure.
One of his first executive orders lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The practice is a controversial one, but both scientists and doctors believe that stem cells could hold the key to curing countless diseases, from Parkinson’s to cancer, and could even be used to treat physical injuries, including spinal cord damage.
At the same time, the president signed a memorandum instructing the OSTP to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.” He made it clear from moment one that empirical evidence would be the driving force behind his administration’s decisions.
“Ensuring that the US continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration.” —Barack Obama
The administration oversaw the revitalization of NASA, and a surprise increase in the agency’s budget. While the space shuttle program came to a close in 2011, NASA is working on a new space vehicle of its own and has partnered with private companies on other spacecraft. When Obama took office in 2009, the idea of a commercial space flight seemed relatively far-fetched. It was just six months before his inauguration when SpaceX became the first private company to reach orbit, and now it’s running resupply missions to the ISS.
The president and Joe Biden also made a point of identifying the next “moonshots” — grand projects like the BRAIN initiative and Cancer Moonshot Task Force. These programs pumped billions of dollars into mapping the human mind and advancing neuroscience, and battling cancer, respectively. Just before he left office, Obama pledged millions to research artificial intelligence and to work with industry leaders to ensure it’s a force for positive change.
Nowhere has Obama’s approach to science been more clear than on climate change. But this is also one of the areas where his legacy may be short-lived. As we’ve discussed before, much of the work done by the Obama White House can easily be undone by the incoming administration, including the Clean Power Plan and it could refuse to comply with the Paris Agreement.
By his second term, Obama was increasingly reliant on executive orders to accomplish his goals. So, while a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the federal government within the next decade sounds significant, the truth is that efforts like these aren’t likely to endure. And it’s still unclear if his decision to protect large swaths of the continental shelf from offshore drilling, under a 1953 law, will survive legal challenges.
That being said, during his time as president, Obama did manage to make some lasting impact. He argued recently in an essay for Science that clean energy has “irreversible momentum,” and that may be true. In the past eight years, his policies have helped turn wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy into big business. Federal investment in R&D and tougher regulations have accelerated the move toward clean energy and electric cars. The Department of Energy even loaned Tesla $465 million.
New presidents may reduce regulations and increase reliance on fossil fuels, but they won’t be able to roll back an entire industry.
With all the work to be done in science and technology, it’s clear that one of the priorities would need to be training future engineers, researchers and programmers. The White House invested plenty of government resources in STEM education, pushing for computer programming classes in high schools and encouraging teachers to provide hands-on learning opportunities.
But more important, Obama used his stature to draw attention to science, technology and astronomy. He hosted an entire week of programming on the Science Channel, guest-edited Wired and recorded an introduction for the prime-time reboot of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. In short, he helped make science cool again and even became the first president to write a computer program.
“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.” —Barack Obama
The White House became home to an annual science fair and mini Maker Faires where the president geeked out with kids of all ages, as well as celebrities like Bill Nye and LeVar Burton. Projects on display ranged from efforts to program complex neural networks to marshmallow guns and artificial legs.
Modernizing the government
Just three months into his first term, Barack Obama appointed America’s first chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra. This new position within the OSTP focused on helping the White House leverage data and new technologies to improve government efficiency and effectiveness. The creation of the CTO position was an attempt to bring something of a Silicon Valley mind-set to the federal government.
Chopra and Obama quickly made efforts to modernize the executive branch. That involved opening up data to be shared between agencies and with the American public. Suddenly, machine-readable government information was readily available to anyone interested in building an app or performing research. APIs available through data.gov made it easy for companies to tap into this wealth of information to improve everything from real estate search results to calorie-counting apps.
In 2014, Obama also formed the United States Digital Service, which is essentially a consulting agency within the Executive Office that helps other federal agencies. USDS offers guidance on IT, connects departments with outside contractors and generally helps improve public-facing federal websites.
The White House and the Commerce Department also embraced the concept of “big data” and added chief data scientist positions. These new roles focused on turning the vast amounts of information being collected by the government into actionable policy.
These were not the only roles President Obama established with a focus on taking on the challenges of an increasingly digital world. He, along with the Pentagon, created several cybersecurity-specific positions within the administration. Proposals have even been floated to elevate Cyber Command to the same status as other military combatant commands, such as the Pacific Command and United States Central Command. And, as he leaves office, Obama hands over a comprehensive new cybersecurity plan for his successor. (Though it’s unlikely the new administration will embrace it.)
In eight years, Barack Obama left an indelible mark on our federal government and our country. Some of his efforts on climate change and his heavy investment in science won’t continue under the new president. But the White House Donald Trump is taking over is far more modern and agile than the one inherited by his predecessor. It’s also one with far more tools and data at its disposal.
It’s safe to say that part of Obama’s legacy will be as the most tech-savvy president in history. A title he’ll likely keep for at least the next four years.
Images: Joshua Lott via Getty Images (Lead image); Reuters (Tom Wheeler); D. Thomas Magee (Yahoo illustration); ASSOCIATED PRESS (NSA protest); NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr (ISS in orbit); REUTERS (smokestacks); Adela Loconte via Getty Images (US CTO, Megan Smith).