What Obama and Bezos have in common — from the man who’s called both ‘boss’

Amazon SVP of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

The list of similarities between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and President Barack Obama is not long. But the two leaders do have one thing in common. They both enlisted Jay Carney to communicate with the public on their behalf.

Carney said there’s another key similarity between Obama and Bezos, speaking Wednesday on stage at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle:

They’re obviously different in so many ways but they’re very similar in one particular way which is, they are both very long-view focused. Jeff has historically been willing to not do the things that typical companies or CEOs do … he was wiling to take some heat for it and President Obama was the same way. He was a phenom who had risen from nowhere and become a candidate for president. He wasn’t part of the Washington game. He hadn’t been running for president for most of his adult life. He hadn’t been on the national stage and it just meant that he didn’t see things the way others did and he wouldn’t do things that I and some of his other advisors told him that he absolutely had to do because it’s what one does to win the day or win the week in the media cycle.

By playing the long game, both leaders often ignored the recommendations of their advisors, Carney said. In Bezos’ case, that meant eschewing profits to invest in growing Amazon. For Obama, it involved campaign decisions that didn’t necessarily pay off in the short-term.

Carney left a two-decade journalism career to join the Obama White House as Press Secretary in 2011. In 2015, Amazon hired him to run the Global Corporate Affairs organization, a team that has grown rapidly in recent years as projects like Amazon HQ2 and political headwinds turned a magnifying glass on the company.

“We’ve become a resource, not just a team that reacts to things,” Carney said of Amazon’s D.C.-based policy shop. “We can provide information and perspective to policymakers and help inform them about our business model and what we do, as well as give them general information about how the markets work and how the kind of technology we use works and affects customers.”

Right now, that involves crafting regulations that Amazon thinks should be in place to govern facial recognition technology, which the company sells. Facial recognition has become a lightning rod, with MIT and ACLU researchers claiming the technology amplifies human bias and identifies white men more accurately than other groups.

“Like any new technology, it can be used powerfully for good and potentially for ill and you want to make sure that you maximize the former and minimize the latter,” Carney said. “We’re eager to work with lawmakers and regulators to find that balance.”

Amazon’s influence is sometimes compared to that of a nation because of the company’s growing public policy team, lobbying budget, and foray into government tech. But Carney dismissed that characterization during the fireside chat.

“There’s no question that Amazon is a large company with influence but it is not – and no company is — nearly as important, relevant, or powerful as the United States government or the U.S. president.

But Carney did say that he applies lessons from his time in the White House to his work at Amazon.

“One thing perhaps that I bring to this job … is a little bit of perspective on what a crisis really is,” he said. “When I was in the White House, crises involved life or death decisions, deploying troops, whether or not we’d have healthcare for millions of people who didn’t have it, and issues of that magnitude. We deal with issues at Amazon that are incredibly relevant and important but I can help bring a little perspective on their significance.”

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