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Techies Get Friendly White House Reception

While President Barack Obama’s drive to curb influence-peddling has transformed the swank lobbying world into a kind of ghetto, there is an Obama Corridor on K Street, and it houses technology industry operatives galvanized by an administration that has put their issues at the top of its to-do list.

Not only do tech lobbyists have a leg up on their rivals in the business community, but they are getting the kind of solicitous treatment from Obama they never had under the business-friendly President George W. Bush.

Obama and his aides, according to numerous tech industry sources, buy into the notion that technology is special because it promotes the development of other industries. Bush viewed the tech world as just another business sector, these sources say. “He doesn’t know the difference between a silicon chip and a potato chip,” tech lobbyists were fond of whispering to each other.

“I really think that President Obama has shown he understands that innovation and technology can drive the economy,” said Josh Ackil, a partner in the Franklin Square Group, which specializes in representing high-tech companies. “It’s a different perspective,” Ackil added, saying the new view may stem from a “generational” attitude and from Obama’s successful use of technology in the campaign.

“There’s been rejuvenation,” said one Obama Corridor lobbyist. “We used to watch Bush’s State of the Union addresses and wait to see if he said the word ‘broadband’ — and if he did, that was it for the year.”

On Wednesday, Obama did his first bit of presidential glad-handing with the business community, inviting a tech-heavy group of 13 chief executive officers to the White House to share their thoughts. Among them were Micron’s Steve Appleton, Motorola’s Greg Brown, John Bryson of Edison International, Ann Mulcahy of Xerox, Sam Palmisano of IBM and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

Not wanting the tech community’s Washington reps to stink up the Roosevelt Room — where Obama met with the CEOs — the White House sequestered the lobbyists in another room with new National Economic Council Deputy Director Jason Furman. Some then joined the CEOs in the East Room for a few public remarks by Obama.

“CEOs are pretty good lobbyists, but they’re not registered,” remarked one source who spoke about the chiefs’ privileged access to Obama.

Sources say the meeting grew from a letter to the bipartisan Congressional leadership last week backing the stimulus. The letter was signed by many of those who found themselves at the White House. In a further sign of Obama’s commitment to the tech crowd, the stimulus itself includes large chunks of change for broadband, health information technology and scientific research, among other items. Even the road construction money, lobbyists point out, benefits technology companies because of sensor equipment that will be used on modern highways and the possibility of laying down wire as the roads are built.

On the Obama Corridor, sources point to an in-crowd with particularly tight ties to the Obama folks. Among them is Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti — ironically a Bush administration alumnus who is executive director of the Technology CEO Council, which includes several CEOs who met with Obama. Mehlman’s partner David Castagnetti is also close to the former Clintonites who make up Obama’s staff. And Jon Hoganson, a principal at the firm, worked for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for five years and is viewed as a key conduit to the White House. Hoganson has performed a critical role in building the type of relations between the White House and the tech officials that led to Wednesday’s CEO summit.

The first among equals of the CEOs is Google’s Schmidt, who served as an Obama transition adviser on tech issues and who has hosted Obama on Google’s campus.

Others with special reach into the West Wing, according to K Street sources, are Mark Bohannon of the Software & Information Industry Association and John Kenny and Ken Kay of the e-Luminate Group.

Several tech association officials said the Obama team was paying close attention to their needs.

Ralph Hellmann, senior vice president of the Information Technology Industry Council, noted that ITIC President Dean Garfield and other ITIC staffers have been in frequent contact with Obama aides since well before Obama was elected.

“It’s very logical that now that he’s in office, [the stimulus] largely reflects priorities that we recommended to them,” Hellmann said.

Phil Bond, president of the Technology Association of America — newly formed as a result of a merger between Bond’s old Information Technology Association of America and the American Electronics Association — said the Obama outreach to him and other techies has been significant. The administration asked his group in early December to convene a meeting of the tech lobby at AEA headquarters so that transition officials could get the gist of the industry’s needs and concerns.

It’s been better than under the Bush regime, agreed Bond, a former Bush undersecretary of Commerce.

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