Barack Obama's last bill: A bridge for Trump to Silicon Valley and Elon Musk?

Obama's final bill, cementing a program that brings top tech talent to Washington, may be as much an olive branch to Trump as it is an expression of Obama's values.

Saul Loeb/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands with then-President-elect Donald Trump during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

The final days of the Obama presidency seemed structured to focus on the issues that have long been most important to him — and his final bill was no exception.

On Friday morning, President Obama signed a bill codifying the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. The program, which he created in 2012, enjoys bipartisan support, and faced little opposition as it made its way through Congress. Its mandate: bring top tech talent to Washington to address a range of issues facing federal government programs, from transparency to technology education. 

By codifying the fellowship, Mr. Obama may have ensured that this fruitful partnership between tech leaders and government will continue into the next administration. That’s good news for Donald Trump, who – though he tussled with Silicon Valley during the campaign – has recently shown a willingness to work with tech leaders, including Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. And this sign of goodwill from Obama may help to keep lines of communication between the two presidents open going forward.

"By signing this bipartisan bill into law, President Obama took an important step toward ensuring that the federal government continues to strengthen its collaborative efforts with innovators and entrepreneurs while improving efficiency and accountability," said Senator Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a press release.

Though Obama was highly critical of President Trump during the election campaign, he has since worked to communicate with Mr. Trump and ensure a smooth transition. Though many of his actions toward the end of his presidency seemed to highlight his apparent differences from Trump – warning against lifting sanctions on Russia, praising the freedom of the press, and emphasizing diversity – maintaining those lines of communication after he leaves office remains important, the New York Times reported:

“Since the election, the departing president has tried to forge a relationship of sorts with his successor and hopes to keep lines of communication open to privately influence Mr. Trump to the degree that he can.”

Obama has long enjoyed strong relationships with Silicon Valley and the tech sector. Trump, by contrast, has struggled: during the election campaign, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was notable for being one of few tech leaders to support Trump.

After winning the election, however, Trump has made an effort to work with Silicon Valley, holding a meeting of top CEOs at Trump Tower in December and tapping leaders like Elon Musk as special advisers. 

So Obama’s final bill, signaling areas of consensus and supporting Trump in an area he hopes to strengthen, may be an olive branch. The Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional National Talent Act of 2017, which codifies Obama’s tech fellows program, may provide Trump with a bridge to Silicon Valley – and keep tech talent flowing to Washington.

“This law will play a part in helping improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our federal workforce," said Senator James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma in the press release.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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