Bill Whalen

Obama’s visits to California were missed opportunities

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on June 24.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on June 24. Associated Press

This grumpy old writer – too many unwanted AARP solicitations will do it to a guy – isn’t spending his summer yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

But I do want Mark Zuckerberg to get off the stage. And put on some adult clothes.

I’m referring to last week’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University, which featured a discussion featuring the Facebook CEO, President Barack Obama and three young enterprisers from two other continents.

Obama showed up in a suit and tie. “Zuck” sported jeans, sneakers and his trademark tight T-shirt. That’s fine for a Silicon Valley hipster. But it disrespects the leader of the free world – both the man and his office.

The event also said oodles about Obama’s relationship with the Golden State. The president rambled on about a social-media revolution, technology as a bridge to prosperity and problem solving, plus the optimism and hope of an interconnected world.

In other words, it was an Obama tour de force in the fine art of saying much and nothing at the same time.

I’m afraid it’s the same-old, same-old for Democratic presidents in these gilded progressive parts – swathed by posh surroundings (swank restaurants, elegant mansions), and basking in the glow of a fawning echo chamber (celebrities, moneyed liberal dreamers) for whom Obama is the epitome of cool.

After seven years of such empty-calorie offerings, it’s time to ask: Who gets more out of Obama’s visits to California – the nation-state or the statesman?

In Obama’s first visit to the Golden State a couple of months after he first took office, he held two town hall meetings, sat down with Jay Leno on the “Tonight Show” and toured an electric vehicle plant in Pomona. His last California visit prior to Zuckerberg’s taut tee included two days of fundraising in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

In between, Obama has shown flashes of substance, including huddling with China’s president in Rancho Mirage three summers ago and meeting with families of San Bernardino mass shooting victims just before last Christmas.

However, Obama has rarely passed on a shot at bromance. The night before his Stanford appearance, Obama was wined and dined by smitten venture capitalists at a trendy bistro. On another California jaunt, he played pickup hoops with George Clooney and Tobey Maguire.

I know what you’re going to say: Cut the man some slack. And I do. This golfing president’s taken full advantage of California’s desert links. Good for him: the more he decompresses, the better for the nation.

But one wonders if part of the Obama legacy will be missed opportunities to address larger matters.

There has been no major address in Oakland about that city’s torn social fabric – the same malady of poverty, crime, limited economic opportunity and lack of family structure that envelops too many American cities. There was no bonding with the state’s scientific community over curing diseases or furthering environmental causes.

In this regard, last week’s return to California was no exception. Obama referenced social media, but didn’t get into how the tech community might assist in stopping terrorists from using it to recruit and incite. The president is all but certain to come back to San Francisco to raise money, but will he venture down the peninsula to butt heads with the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google over encryption?

Don’t let the gray hair fool you: Obama’s no tired old grump. If only he’d step up his game and take his hangers-on out of their comfort zone – beginning with making them put on a collared shirt.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at