Uber Starts Speaking Washington’s Language

The San Francisco ride-hailing company, often a combative force with regulators, tailors its pitch to politicians and paints itself as the solution to government’s problems.

DNC DAY FOUR

David Plouffe

Photographer: Keith Bedford/Bloomberg

Washington may be 2,800 miles from Silicon Valley, but its inhabitants are every bit as interested in successful technology companies like Uber. The main difference is that Washington’s attention usually takes the form of regulating and investigating those companies.

David Plouffe, who led Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign before joining Uber last year, returned to Washington on Tuesday to put a positive spin on a company that’s drawn increased scrutiny from regulators and become a target of many politicians and interest groups. Rather than adopt the defensive posture companies typically employ in Washington—or even the aggressive one Uber has become infamous for globally—Plouffe cast the company as the solution to a whole host of policy and economic maladies that governments have failed to solve.

Plouffe spoke to an audience at a local tech incubator devoted to, among other endeavors, “regulatory hacking.” That was the thrust of Plouffe’s business in Washington. His message was that Uber is being mischaracterized by its critics and should not be thought of as a regulatory conundrum for federal bureaucrats but as a benign force for social and economic uplift. He said the San Francisco car-booking app is “more of an opportunity to be seized on than a problem to be solved.” Taking things a step further, Plouffe described Uber as “a small miracle.”

In a speech aimed squarely at Washington regulators and opinion makers, Plouffe challenged the notion that Uber drivers in any way resemble traditional workers. Half of the company’s 400,000 U.S. drivers work 10 hours a week or less, relying on Uber to supplement wages earned elsewhere, he said. Plouffe cast Uber as an economic engine deserving of respect and appreciation from Washington.

Employing a strategy popular among lobbyists, Plouffe augmented his remarks with slides showing the many thousands of Uber employees working in cities across the country—a reminder to representatives and senators that Uber drivers live, and vote, in their districts. According to the PowerPoint, Washington has 27,000 active drivers. “If a factory opened up with those numbers, there'd be a ticker-tape parade for days,” Plouffe said.

Among the public problems Uber promises to alleviate: traffic congestion, stagnant wages, neighborhoods lacking reliable transportation, unemployment, and transportation discrimination.

Plouffe’s remarks won’t end the push by taxi unions or skeptical regulators to impose greater restrictions on Uber and its drivers. But as a White House veteran, he no doubt recognizes that making a positive case for his company, in the language of Washington lawmakers, will be necessary if Uber intends to stave off the most burdensome regulations.

Tuesday’s event seemed designed to better ingratiate Uber with a city that remains unconvinced by the virtues of the company’s business model. If nothing else, Plouffe showed that he speaks the native language: “We’re not asking for a tax break.”

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