This past Friday morning in San Francisco, Dean Phillips—the Democratic congressman waging a quixotic primary challenge against Joe Biden—arrived at the doorstep of one of the most important people in Silicon Valley: Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI. A Democratic power player who, a political lifetime ago, considered running for governor of California, Altman has some eclectic views that don’t fit neatly into progressive dogma. But like most liberals in tech, he has been deeply unnerved by the real and growing threat of a second Donald Trump presidency. Thus, the Altman-Phillips summit in Russian Hill.
Altman, over the last 18 months or so, has ascended from mere Silicon Valley celebrity into a new stratosphere in the culture, cheerily proselytizing the A.I. revolution to regulators in Washington. All the while, he has refrained from speaking publicly about his own political plots. But behind the scenes, the baby-faced former Y Combinator chief has recently made it clear to friends and Phillips aides that he is considering playing a major role in supporting Phillips’s presidential run over the next few months. (Altman, who is not yet ready to discuss his involvement publicly, declined my interview request.)
All throughout 2022, in conversations with friends in tech and politics, Altman became convinced that Biden could not win reelection—and, perhaps, might not even run. And so Altman convened a series of private gatherings, none of which was previously reported, centered on identifying and recruiting a viable Biden alternative who could prevent Trump’s return. Altman, I’m told, used some of his own money while also raising a little from like-minded friends in Silicon Valley, to finance focus groups and polling to ascertain how voters felt about Biden and Trump. It was a fairly small, informally organized effort, but it spoke to Altman’s brewing concerns—a sentiment that was validated over the weekend when The New York Times published a set of polls showing Biden losing to Trump in five key swing states, setting off another round of bed wetting in Washington.