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The Obama Valley Dinner: POTUS Got the Seating Chart Wrong

By - March 18, 2011

This one has bugged me for some time, but I’ve not had the time to write it. Now that I’m on a plane for the next four hours, and it has Wifi, I can finally get around to bitching out loud about the photo below:

obama valley dinner.png

Now this photo was widely discussed when it was released by the White House, a few weeks ago. Folks speculated on who the people were that we couldn’t see (the woman with her back to us? The guy next to Zuckerberg?!), and while I may know who those folks are, that’s not my point.

Although my point *is* about the seating chart.

Because if you don’t think a team of protocol and political experts didn’t plan out who sat where in relation to POTUS, well, you’re just not very familiar with how Washington DC does dinner parties. Who sits where, and why, is more than discussed. It’s debated, it’s determined, and it sends a clear message to all concerned. And when a photo like this is released by the White House, it declares to the public a definitive and particular pecking order.

So, with that in mind, is it any surprise that the two leaders who received the privilege of sitting next to President Obama were Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg?

After all, they do rank very high in the Valley – probably in the top three, if not top two, though Eric Schmidt might take issue with that (and Lord knows Larry Ellison will too, but come on).

But what matters here is not who the Valley thinks are the most important folks in the realm. What matters is what Washington, and in particular the White House, believes, and in particular what message, if any, it wants to send through a photo like this.

And I am, quite frankly, disappointed with the seating chart.

Why? Well, because this administration is supposedly all about openness. It’s got the Open Government Initiative, after all, with a conference focusing on samesaid this very week. At the top of its Valley policy agenda is privacy, again with a focus on transparency. Not to mention how the adminsitration has stood up time and again for the open Internet in foreign policy matters.

So why are the CEOs of the two companies with the most closed and controlling data ecosystems – Facebook and Apple – sitting right next to the President?

I’d argue the White House missed an opportunity to send a subtle message – one favoring open platforms, open data exchange, and transparency about data use. Had those been factored into the seating chart, I’d wager that Schmidt and Costolo would have been sitting next to Obama, and Zuckerberg and Jobs would have languished a bit nearer toward the ends of the table. Sure, neither Twitter nor Google are innocent when it comes to how they disclose use of data, but both are clear champions of openness in computing ecosystems, as well as active agents of change in foreign policy issues. I mean, check out this tweet from Dick, and this post from Google, just for starters. And that’s just China….

Just thinking out loud here. End of rant.

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11 thoughts on “The Obama Valley Dinner: POTUS Got the Seating Chart Wrong

  1. Katherine Bull says:

    Interesting post, John. Here’s how *I* would interpret the seating chart. Jobs – well, the guy isn’t well. Give him the opportunity to sit next to Obama. Beyond that, I would argue that Larry and John did get the best seats because they are in direct eye contact with Obama, thus getting more of his attention. Sure, the president can make some side comments to Steve and Zuckerberg but he isn’t seeing their body language or faces as well as the others and they can’t see his so that’s a disadvantage. So, he’s in direct eye contact with the richest man in CA (I think Larry still is?) and the guy who gives out the most funding to emerging companies. Analysis on Larry: 2012 election purse. Analysis on John: Influencing the younger set, who were critical to Obama’s election in 2008 via grassroots efforts. I could be wrong, of course, since I think you can read into a seating chart many different ways. –Katherine

  2. John says:

    @Katherine, you make a good point. It was key that Larry and Doerr have eye contact with POTUS, for sure. But I think sitting next to has more status….

  3. You do realize, I hope, that you’re almost surely arguing completely over the heads of whoever planned this levee.

  4. Steve says:

    Interesting Bay Area-centric analyses.

    But POTUS handlers likely focused on the optics for that oft-forgotten non-Bay Area constituency. And given that, the analysis probably went something like this: there are two cool attendees besides POTUS, Jobs and Zuckerberg. Everyone knows Steve’s story, and Zuckerberg is the man of the year, for crying out loud. Put them next to the prez. Everybody else is noise. Except Google — people are getting worried about them, even in Peoria, so we don’t want POTUS to seem too cozy with Schmidt, so put him far away.

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  6. mrg says:

    POTUS is going to try to get re-elected last i heard. I’d love for somebody inside the beltway to annotate that pic with $$ figures above each head. Maybe it already exists?

  7. Katherine Bull says:

    @John It is a good observation about status. Telling people “I sat next to the President at dinner” is a big one. More so for Zuckerberg than Steve, I think.

    The bigger question is whether there was a pre-dinner cocktail party. I’m sure there was plenty of 1:1 time there if it was long enough.

    If I had been invited to that party/dinner, I’d have put a pack of Marlboros in my purse and invited him outside for a smoke ;-) Certainly that would’ve gotten me some 1:1 time.

    Then again, my days as a reporter scheming to get access are just a memory now. Now, as an acquisitions editor at Pearson, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve to try and sign authors to write a book for me. :-)

    Katherine

  8. Jordan says:

    With all due respect John, I don’t think the White house is technically savvy enough to grasp the whole data / open source concept and do a strategic analysis of each company’s position on the matter when arranging a seating chart. Obama, is the lowet paid in that room. Perhaps they went by biggest campaign donor’s or something as simple as drawing names from a hat. Not everything requires that much analysis. Besides, it’s not the Last Supper, it’s just a dinner.

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  10. another John says:

    You’ve really got something against Apple/Jobs doncha?

    Sheesh, talk about Kremlinolgy from back in the pre-Perstroika days, and reading tea leaves in the Pravda/Isvesita photos.

  11. Interesting topic. i like it!