De­spite de­nials, the Facebook founder is mak­ing all the noises of a can­di­date-in-wait­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT PHILPOT

FOR A man who has re­peat­edly de­nied that he is plan­ning to run for US pres­i­dent, Mark Zucker­berg con­tin­ues to pro­vide much ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

Last month, the Facebook chief ex­ec­u­tive 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 ad­voa cacy. 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 cam­paign­style images: Mr Zucker­berg tour­ing 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 third­party 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-elec-

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