Last month, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hired Joel Benenson, a former senior Obama adviser and Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist during last year’s presidential election, as a consultant for his charitable foundation.
Mr Benenson joins a roster of campaign specialists now associated with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a body whose stated goal is “advancing human potential and promoting equality”.
At the start of the year, Mr Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, appointed David Plouffe, Mr Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, as the foundation’s president of policy and advocacy. Mr Plouffe has been joined by Amy Dudley, a former adviser to Senator Tim Kaine, Mrs Clinton’s running mate last November, while Ken Mehlman, who steered George W Bush to re-election in 2004, is a board member.
The appointments have fuelled speculation that was first ignited last December. Mr Zuckerberg announced that his New Year resolution for 2017 was: “to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year”. His accompanying declaration — that, for all its benefits, technology and globalisation had made life more challenging for millions of Americans necessitating “a need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone” — had a decidedly political edge.
Meticulously documented on his Facebook page, the subsequent tour has produced a tableau of campaign-style images: Mr Zuckerberg touring a Ford plant in Michigan, meeting policemen in Texas, and chatting with cattle ranchers in South Dakota. His posts read a little like stump speeches. That Mr Zuckerberg made an early stop in Iowa — the first state to vote in the presidential primaries — did little to dampen the media’s interest.
To the cynical eye, Mr Zuckerberg also looks to have been attending to those aspects of his life that might prove off-putting to middle America. Having previously identified himself as an atheist — a group viewed more negatively by Americans than any other bar Muslims — he offered Christmas and Chanukah greetings in December and declared: “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”
Moreover, even as Mr Zuckerberg was reiterating that his tour was simply about ensuring Facebook is serving its users well, the social media behemoth was filing regulatory documents that suggested otherwise. Buried in the documents was a clause that effectively indicated that Mr Zuckerberg could retain control of the company even if he temporarily gave up his post while “serving in a government position or office”.
As others have previously found, appearing to flirt with a presidential run can attract boundless free publicity — much of it positive — without the rigours and scrutiny that inevitably follow actually entering the race. Unless he intends to undertake a third-party bid — none of which have ever previously met with success — Mr Zuckerberg will also have to nail his political colours to the mast. Although he has donated more often to the Democrats, the Facebook founder has also given to high-profile Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. Attempting to avoid labels, he has blandly pronounced himself “pro-knowledge economy”, although his strong support for immigration reform has previously attracted the ire of Donald Trump.
Like Mr Trump, Mr Zuckerberg has both deep pockets and instant name recognition. However, his inseparability from Facebook may cut both ways. Assuming he runs for re-election, any candidate running against Mr Trump in 2020 will need to focus hard on white working-class voters in the rust belt whose lack of support for the Democrats proved fatal to Mrs Clinton. On the face of it, a California-based tech billionaire may struggle to make that connection. Commentators observe that Silicon Valley has also lost some of its 1990s’ lustre. A columnist in USA Today last month suggested that an industry that once encapsulated the spirit of “personal liberation and empowerment… now seems to be creepy and controlling”.
Facebook itself has come under fire from both left and right over the past year. Some Democrats accused it of doing too little to stop the spread of anti-Clinton “fake news” on its platforms, while conservatives leapt on allegations that the company suppressed right-wing news outlets from its “Trending Topics” section. Shoring up public trust in a company that would swiftly collapse without either may thus, in part, explain Mr Zuckerberg’s high-profile tour.
Unlike any of his potential opponents, he is in the fortunate position of being able to explore a campaign while retaining the ability to subsequently claim that his cross-country travels were nothing more than the actions of a diligent chief executive, should he choose not to run.