Is Obama this century’s Hayes?

Published April 24, 2012

There are many ways to describe those who fear encroaching technology: Luddites, technophobes, and, incorrectly, President Rutherford B. Hayes. To Hayes is attributed technophobia so intense that he is alleged to have been oblivious to the value of having a telephone in the White House Oval Office.

However, Hayes deserves a bit more credit for recognizing the potential of communications and information technology than the White House’s current occupant and his administration.

Before we set Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to the 1870s to defend Hayes’ record, let’s observe the current landscape. On President Barack Obama’s watch, bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Department of Justice have turned up their noses at the current state of competitive technologies in the United States.

The FCC and FTC exacted ridiculous demands from Comcast and NBC Universal as grounds for administrative approval of the two companies’ merger in 2011, including requiring the reservation of broadcast space for racially diverse programming. Thank goodness Washington, DC is looking out for Magic Johnson, who otherwise couldn’t afford his own cable TV channel.

Obama’s three-headed Luddite hydra next struck at a proposed merger of T-Mobile and AT&T, claiming it would be more competitive to let the former die on the vine than to allow the latter to bottle it. The merger was necessary for AT&T to attain valuable spectrum possessed by T-Mobile, but Obama’s agencies gave the enterprise a thumbs-down.

And speaking of spectrum, the FCC still sits on a treasure trove of it as officials there wring their hands over how best it can be auctioned off to ensure, once again, competitiveness by cutting out the nation’s largest carriers in favor of the little guys and startups. This is a great way to punish success in the marketplace, but it’s certainly unfair to the companies that have been serving wireless customers successfully for the past 25 years. More importantly, it does little to help the customers of those telcos who need more spectrum to operate smartphones and apps.

The Senate and the president doubled down on the FCC, FTC, and DOJ mischief by thwarting an FCC reform bill, which Obama has declared he would veto should the bill ever arrive on his desk. The bill, which already has passed the House, mind you, seeks only to increase the regulatory agency’s transparency–a mantra oft-chanted in Obama’s 2008 election campaign–and prevent the FCC from making up new rules; it’s supposed to enforce only those passed by Congress.

Keep in mind the FCC’s not supposed to adopt rules in the first place, but that didn’t stop Obama’s team from adopting so-called network neutrality regulations in December 2010, even after a U.S. District Court told them unequivocally, back in April 2010, that they could not do so. The cost of fighting these rules is borne by the companies, while the cost to defend them is shouldered by you, dear readers, who are the taxpayers graciously affording through coercion such misbehavior by our nonelected government officials.

President Hayes’ alleged technophobia makes for a nice cultural meme, except that it’s not true. It seems Obama’s speechwriters picked it up from a 1985 speech by Ronald Reagan, who had employed the apocryphal story as a setup for the punch line: “I thought at the time that he might be mistaken.”

In fact, it was during the Hayes administration that Thomas Edison demonstrated the phonograph at the White House and typewriters debuted in an official government capacity. As for that mischievous phone, Hayes did indeed have one installed, and he was given “1” as his phone number.

The current president and his followers would be well-served to follow Hayes’ examples rather than foolishly ridiculing–while simultaneously adhering to–the positions falsely attributed to him.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.