SXSW: How the Fest Landed President Obama

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President Barack Obama

Obama is the first sitting president to speak at SXSW since it launched 30 years ago.

South by Southwest will make history Friday when it hosts President Barack Obama for an hourlong conversation about how technology can be used for governmental innovation.

The keynote, led by The Texas Tribune’s editor-in-chief, Evan Smith, marks the first time in the 30-year history of the technology, film and music confab that a sitting president has participated. First lady Michelle Obama will also visit Austin on March 16 for a SXSW Music discussion about her Let Girls Learn initiative.  

SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest says the Obamas were last-minute additions to this year’s lineup, which also includes official talks with Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, director J.J. Abrams and Scandal star Kerry Washington. But the legwork to bring them to Austin began years ago.

“We’ve been able to cultivate contacts in the White House over the last several years,” says Forrest, noting that last year featured a keynote with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith. “There’s been a pretty good relationship.”

And although past conversations about bringing “senior officials at the White House” to SXSW fell through, Forrest approached them again in late November last year. He got a little sign of hope Jan. 12 when he tuned into the State of the Union address and heard the President reference Austin as a technology hub. “I thought, ‘if he’s talking about Austin, that’s a good sign,’” says Forrest. "There was absolutely nothing confirmed at that point, but I just am a person who believes in signs or, you know, projects things into signs. And the fact that he mentioned Austin, I was happy.”

The President is expected to spend much of his talk encouraging the audience, which will include a significant number of SXSW-going engineers and entrepreneurs, to use technology and innovation to help make the government more effective and efficient.

“It’ll be interesting,” says Forrest, “because I think a lot of the SXSW audience has some fairly mixed feelings about government and what role they should be playing.” He adds that SXSW draws an influential crowd of global-minded entrepreneurs and that they likely want to hear Obama's message.  

The President is expected to arrive in Austin in the early afternoon and will attend two Democratic National Committee events following his talk at the Long Center. The Texas state capital, meanwhile, is preparing not only for thousands of SXSW attendees, but also for the traffic jams that come with a presidential visit. City officials have already suggested that locals work from home and many public school students will be sent home around noon.

“We know that traffic during SXSW can be difficult,” says Forrest, noting that Obama’s visit adds “another layer of complexity.” But he also acknowledges that the city has been preparing for the moment. “There will certainly be some inconveniences, and a little bit of delays by the road closures. But it might not be as bad as you think it will be.”

Meanwhile, Forrest has five days of interactive programming to prepare for and he wants visitors to remember all of the other, non-presidential speakers who will be leading discussions throughout the week. “Five percent of the speakers at an event like SXSW aren’t people that you’ve heard of, but they’re the up-and-comers who are doing things that may be big in a couple of years,” he says. “That’s ultimately what makes SXSW compelling.”