State of The Union Speech Light on Tech

President George Bush was far more circumspect about information technology in his Tuesday night State of the Union address than he was during his 2006 speech in which he gave a major plug for technology and competitiveness.

The president was facing an entirely different scenario than his five previous State of the Union addresses. Democrats, for the first time in 12 years, control both the U.S. House and Senate. Faced with low approval ratings and a rising tide of violence in the Iraq war, the president pushed for conciliation on broad social issues and narrowed the overall scope of his 5,665-word speech.

In his address, the president mentioned technology four times and only vaguely referenced the competitiveness initiative. This year he limited himself to general references of technology’s role in reducing health care costs and energy consumption. He also stressed the role of technology in border security and called for upgrading math and science skills in the nation’s schools.

“We need to reduce costs and medical errors with better information technology,” Bush said in a typical IT reference. To diversify the country’s energy supply, he said technology “was the way forward.” He called for more funding for “new infrastructure and technology” to be used in border security.

On education, Bush said, “We can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future and our country is more competitive by strengthening math and science skills.”

The president also called on Congress to have a “serious, civil and conclusive debate” on immigration reform. This is a critical issue for the IT industry, which wants the cap increased on H-1B Visas that allow foreign nationals with advanced degrees in science, engineering and technology to work in the United States for up to six years.

The allotment of 65,000 H1-B visas for 2007 is already gone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. While most lawmakers favor increasing the cap, the issue has been held hostage in the broader debate over worker programs and amnesty. Bush did not mention H-1B Visas in his speech.

“It was a more focused speech around a few key areas,” Jim Hock, a spokesman for TechNet, a political network of technology executives, told Diane Smiroldo, the vice president for public affairs at the Business Software Alliance (BSA), added, “[The president] had a much broader agenda [Tuesday night].”

Joel Kaplan, the White House’s deputy chief of staff for policy, told reporters Tuesday night before the speech the president deliberately planned to scale back his State of the Union speech.

“[Bush] did not want to do a laundry list-type approach that’s kind of become the formula for State of the Union addresses,” Kaplan said. “He wanted to focus on a handful of the most serious, biggest challenges that we face where there’s real interest and real opportunity to work together across the aisle to come up with good solutions.”

Tech items left off this year’s laundry list include the government’s commitment to funding basic research and encouraging private investment in research through R&D tax credit reform. Nor did the president mention his goal of “universal, affordable access for broadband” by this year.

Nevertheless, the BSA, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and TechNet found much to like in the president’s speech.

“If you look at what he did say and his tone, we were very encouraged,” Smiroldo said. Karen Knutson, the BSA’s vice president for government affairs, noted, “Technology is such an underpinning for everything he talked about. There were some pretty good things in there, particularly about the need to focus on math and science education.”

George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, also praised the president’s comments on education, saying in a statement, “Strengthening our children’s education, particularly in math and science, is key to ensuring our nation’s legacy as the innovation leader.”

Bush’s statements on energy and technology particularly pleased TechNet and the SIA. “The president’s statement regarding the role of technology in energy efficiency and alternative energy sources underscores the importance of innovation to our nation’s strength and security,” Scalise said.

TechNet’s Hock said “green technology” remains a major policy focus for the group, noting it will bring greater energy efficiencies to the United States.

“We commend the administration for their heightened focus on advanced energy technologies, including alternative and renewable fuels,” TechNet CEO Lezlee Westine said in a statement. “This strong commitment will continue the bipartisan progress we are making to provide greater energy security, global competitiveness and enhanced protection for our environment.”

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