WASHINGTON — Texas computer mogul Michael Dell and his fellow high-tech executives raised twice as much money for George W. Bush's presidential campaign as their Democratic counterparts raised for Al Gore last year.
But now, with the sputtering technology industry threatening to drag the nation into a recession, policy observers and tech executives have begun to wonder if the president--a former oilman--will pay more attention to the fuel of the "new economy": information technology.
Aside from weighing in on stem cell research, Bush has devoted scant attention to Silicon Valley, critics say. Vice President Dick Cheney also has appeared detached--in contrast to Gore's high-profile championing of technology policy during the Clinton years.
Although Bush has had at least four meetings with technology executives this year, industry experts and lobbyists believe a greater focus on technology is needed at a time when scores of dot-coms and high-speed Internet access providers are biting the dust.
It took the president until June 26 to nominate John H. Marburger III to the Office of Science and Technology--a key advisory post. And although Bush named Michael K. Powell chairman of the Federal Communications Commission two days after taking office, a White House paperwork snafu involving Republican FCC nominee Kevin Martin left Powell without a political majority at the five-member FCC until last month.
As a result, Powell has had difficulty marshaling a consensus on key technology issues such as media concentration and telecommunications competition.
"At this point, Bush has shown very little, if any, interest in technology," said Hal Varian, dean of the school of information management at the UC Berkeley. "I just don't think there is a technology champion in the Bush team. Bush's own background is in energy, and his administration reflects that focus."
In his eight months in office, Bush mostly has focused on broad social and economic issues such as education, taxes and trade. But an array of contentious technology issues and a slumping economy may soon make his involvement with technology unavoidable.
The issues include whether to tax commerce on the Internet, whether to push for greater protection for intellectual property, privacy and computer security in cyberspace and how to apply antitrust laws to the new economy. This includes, most immediately, whether to seek a negotiated end to the landmark Microsoft antitrust case.
The Bush administration has not commented on the Microsoft case. But the White House has endorsed a permanent ban on Internet access taxes and vowed to make permanent the federal tax credit for industry research and development expenses. In addition, Cheney has said the White House wants to boost online procurement and open technology markets around the world through trade initiatives.
"It takes time to get up to speed. The president had a short transition period, yet he got his FCC chairman appointed the next day after he got in office," said Richard E. Wiley, a prominent Washington communications lawyer who served as an advisor to the Bush transition team. Wiley conceded that Bush doesn't have his "direct hands on" technology but said, "on balance, I think that things are moving smoothly."
Technology 'Very High Priority,' Official Says
E. Floyd Kvamme, co-chairman of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, was traveling last week and could not be reached. But Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy, said "technology is a very high priority in the administration."
"The president very much believes in the power of technology to improve people's lives," Mehlman said. "The Clinton administration was strong on style. We are strong on substance."
Few industry executives would talk on the record about the Bush administration's handling of technology policy. But several analysts said there is considerable private discussion of the subject in Silicon Valley.
"With the previous administration, Silicon Valley seemed to feel it had a better idea of where the administration was going" on technology policy, said Rob Enderle, a senior technology analyst at Giga Information Group, a Santa Clara consulting firm. "Now, because the administration doesn't speak out as much, there is more uneasiness and . . . uncertainty."
"I've heard grumblings from a number of high-tech lobbyists that they can find nobody in the administration that wants to talk about technology policy," added Robert D. Atkinson, director of technology and new economy research at the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.
Among those that encountered trouble early on was Greg Garcia, a former lobbyist for computer networking company 3Com Corp. He recalled spending several days in February trying to track down someone in the Bush administration to talk tech.