Air Force One took off at 3:20 p.m. Thursday, headed for the San Francisco Bay Area, where President Obama will dine with a high-powered group of high-tech executives to officially talk about innovation. “It’s not a fundraiser,” says White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
But many of the invitees are among the biggest donors to President Obama and the Democratic Party. Eric Schmidt, the outgoing CEO of Google, gave $27,500 to Democratic causes in the 2010 cycle, while his wife, Wendy, gave $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee. Steve Westly, a founder of Ebay now at the Westly Group, gave $70,200 to national Democratic committees in the same time period, while Reed Hastings, the head of Netflix, gave $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The event host, according to the New York Times, is John Doerr, a venture capitalist who has advised the White House and who gave $59,500 to Democratic efforts in the 2010 cycle, while his wife, Ann, gave $124,400 more to Democratic candidates and committees.
These are not small sums, and there is a reason. Silicon Valley and the surrounding areas now rival Hollywood as a major source of Democratic campaign cash lucre. And with 2012 around the corner, and many of Obama’s 2008 Wall Street supporters still fuming over financial reform, the president’s team is focused on making sure the high-tech tap does not run dry in 2012. Doerr, one of America’s most famous venture capitalists, is sure to play a major role in making that happen. In the 1990s, Doerr led the way in building political clout for Silicon Valley, founding TechNet, an early political outreach effort in Washington, and later befriending Al Gore, who now works as a partner at Doerr’s firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. (See this story I wrote about Doerr’s work with the Obama Administration.)
There will be executives at the dinner tonight who do not give heavily to political campaigns, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Twitter’s Dick Costolo. There will also be a couple people who have given to Republicans, including Cisco’s John Chambers and Schmidt, who wrote $20,000 in checks to Republican committees in 2010.
But the fact that the event is being hosted by Doerr, the most famous politically active Democrat in the high-tech world, will send a clear signal to other high tech leaders. Obama is flying 2,400 miles on the government dime for a single dinner, to show he wants to hear from the high tech world and he cares about these concerns. There is no doubt Obama’s fundraisers will be following up with phone calls of their own.