They're technology celebrities who are responsible for one of America's hottest products (the iPad 2), its most transformative cultural trend (Facebook) and one of the coolest additions to the national vocabulary (Googling).
No wonder Silicon Valley leaders such as Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Eric Schmidt can revel in the political cachet that has made them regulars during President Obama's West Coast visits.
But as Americans suffer from unemployment and a lagging economy, some political observers say the heralded heroes of innovation, so prominent in Obama's orbit, could be viewed in the 2012 presidential campaign as greedy villains who are jettisoning privacy rights while taking jobs overseas.
"People love their products," said crisis communications expert Sam Singer of San Francisco. But selling cool products may not be enough to satisfy cash-strapped Americans, Singer added, if they see Silicon Valley's tech titans as missing the opportunity to "change America in a positive way," especially when it comes to jobs.
If Valley business leaders aren't perceived as having an agenda of "creating opportunities" at home, advises Singer, "there will be a backlash – and they will be looked on as digital robber barons."
With the first primary votes of the 2012 election just months away, both Democrat Obama and Republican presidential candidates such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who visited Silicon Valley on Monday for campaign fundraising, are scouring Northern California's tech capital for support. But there are signs that Silicon Valley's CEOs may be losing some of their luster:
— A new animated Web campaign by California-based Consumer Watchdog depicts Google Executive Chairman Schmidt as a Dr. Evil-style character from the "Austin Powers" movies, bent on spying on Americans. The tongue-in-cheek effort to slam the firm's public profile and privacy policies plays directly off Google's unofficial motto: "Don't be evil."
— Apple CEO Jobs' recent announcement of the iCloud music-streaming system coincided with nationwide protests at the firm's retail stores. Groups like the Black Economic Council said that as Americans wait in lines "comparable to U.S. unemployment lines" to buy products like the iPad 2, the Cupertino firm has hired an army of low-wage workers – overseas.
— Social networking giant Facebook of Menlo Park, with more than 500 million users worldwide, has been targeted for privacy concerns – most recently for facial-recognition technology used for labeling "friends" in photos.
In addition, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg, who hosted Obama at a town-hall session in April, has hired former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, a top Beltway political player, to be the company's vice president of global communications.
Jamie Court, who heads Consumer Watchdog, said it's clear the Silicon Valley's tech executives have cultivated a "hoodie and Converse" profile to mask what he says is a traditional corporate adherence to bottom-line profit concerns.
Not creating jobs
"Their innovation has made them billions – and they think that's all they have to do for society," said Court. But at least industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford "made steel and cars and railroads, and pumped up the economy," he said.
"The guys in Silicon Valley are shipping jobs to India and stealing our private information," he said. "They're building more computers, not creating more jobs."
Former state Controller Steve Westly, managing partner of the Westly Group, a clean-tech venture capital firm in Menlo Park, said that despite the impact of a "very tough recession," the president and technology leaders are directly responsible for some recent positive economic turns directly linked to Silicon Valley.
"The good news is tech is starting to do major hiring – Google, Intel and others," Westly, a Democrat, said recently. The initial public offering market "is coming back," he added, "with social networking giant LinkedIn just finished with a multibillion-dollar deal" and others in the works at discount coupon firm Groupon, Facebook and game developer Zynga.
In addition, electric car maker Tesla Motors of Palo Alto, which Westly supported financially from the start, has hired local workers and is "manufacturing cars in Silicon Valley" – at the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, he said.
Westly said the tech CEOs and Obama get "at least partial credit" for those advances. By contrast, he said, "I haven't seen a coherent message from the Republican Party on any tech issues."
But Steve Poizner, a tech CEO and 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate in California, announced last week his partnership with powerhouse Democratic donor and Hollywood producer Sherry Lansing and the Creative Artists Agency, the world's largest talent agency – to create Encore Career Institute, a new online education effort designed for Baby Boomers.
"The structural employment problem is severe, people are suffering – and we need to focus on creating jobs in this country," Poizner said.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House spokesman, said many tech CEOs remain on the "knife's edge" in terms of public opinion. Some Valley firms have failed to exhibit a "sense of political brand … or of corporate responsibility," he said, suggesting that they are bottom-line driven and "dismissive" of both politics and the concerns of the American workforce.
But the good news, Lehane said, is that as it appears "the American dream is in peril – these companies stand as the point of the spear about the future. They stand for everything that is historically great about this country: innovation, entrepreneurship, hard work.
"If these companies are smart, it can be a huge opportunity if they're perceived as part of the solution," he added.
E-mail Carla Marinucci at [email protected].