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Bush's dim pitch for energy

CNET's Charles Cooper says the president missed a golden opportunity when he visited Silicon Valley recently.

President Bush blew into Silicon Valley last Friday for a televised meet-and-greet with Cisco Systems' John Chambers before heading out to Napa Valley for some quality mountain biking. As it turned out, that was the most productive part of his visit.
A correction was made to this column. Read below for details.

Bush opened his talk at Cisco by suggesting it would be an "issues discussion" focused on how to secure the nation's energy independence and improve competitiveness. He said he wanted to engage in a conversation about "how America intends to shape our future and not fear the future."

I was prepared to pay the price of admission--suffering through an hour's worth of political posturing--if he'd make good on the rhetorical promise. Sad to say, somebody now owes me a refund.

"A lot of the reason the iPod exists is because of federal research dollars," Bush said. Umm, Steve Jobs would surely remember history differently.

Jumping from one talking point to another (those speechwriters back in Washington know how to earn their keep), Bush provided little follow-through and little depth to his comments. The audience heard a lot of standard stump lines about lowering taxes and being optimistic, but the president disappointed when it came to offering a big vision or specifics on how to mobilize a technology industry that's itching to help solve America's perennial energy crisis.

After six years in office, Bush and his administration are finally waking up to the fact that U.S. dependence on oil is bad news. Until now, Washington has been content to let the oil companies drill more holes in the ground. If that polluted pristine nature reserves, well, such is the price of modernity. If that contributed to the burning of more fossil fuels and resulted in more atmospheric pollution, well, the evidence about global warming is inconclusive. But with his popularity ratings skidding to new lows, Bush is changing his tune. He's now talking about ethanol and electric hybrids as if there was something new under the sun, and he's even paid lip service to hydrogen. Better late than never. So, welcome--seriously.

Unfortunately, the president let slip a golden opportunity to galvanize Silicon Valley into action.

Venture capitalists and CEOs say the search for energy alternatives could become the hot area. But their efforts to date have been sporadic. The commander in chief had one heckuva bully pulpit with which to issue a call to arms. Instead, he came across as genial and sometimes endearingly goofy, but utterly in over his head about the topic being discussed.

"Interestingly enough, tomorrow I'm going to be riding my bike in Napa Valley. I can't wait," Bush said. "I'll be plugged into an iPod. A lot of the reason the iPod exists is because of federal research dollars." Umm, Steve Jobs would surely remember history differently. But I think Bush's mangled reference has to do with government funded support for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that led to the creation of the Internet.

Click here to Play

Video: President Bush visits Silicon Valley
President speaks about competition during visit.

And yet compared with previous decades, DARPA's been starved by the government for the last six years. , a Stanford professor and founder of VMWare, recently bemoaned the state of government funding. And fellow Stanford prof Mark Horowitz noted 2007 will be the first year he won't receive DARPA help for one of his projects. Jim Clark, who helped start Netscape and Silicon Graphics--hardly a screaming Trotskyite--has described the situation as grim and now urges people to tell their friends to vote for the Democrats.

The president talked about how it's in the national interest to diversify as quickly as possible away from our reliance on hydrocarbons. But that takes research money and brainpower. Unfortunately, the administration hasn't done much to nurture the lifeblood of the U.S. tech industry. Thousands of foreign students are getting turned away, and research grants ain't what they used to be. Who could argue that Silicon Valley has not thrived by attracting the creme de la creme from around the world? But if the U.S. becomes less attractive to foreign graduate students, that's going to affect the quality of the work done in the technology industry.

OK, I've spent three-fourths of this space whining about what the president didn't say. What would I have wanted him to say? How about a Manhattan Project for energy independence?

The one good idea Bush offered during his talk was a pitch to make permanent the research and development tax credit. Don't stop there. The government should rewrite existing tax and investment regulations to favor the search for sustainable energy alternatives.

Create special incentives and tax breaks for start-ups and venture capitalists that set out to help break this logjam. At the same time, enlist the best brains private industry has to offer and provide them with the authority to shepherd the various projects through to completion.

In other words, bring technology to bear on the problem. But if this is to work, government can't sit on the sidelines like a spectator with its fingers crossed.

Correction: This column misstated which Stanford professor in 2007 would for the first time not receive DARPA help for a particular project. The correct professor is Mark Horowitz.