With Apple CEO Tim Cook as an official guest of the First Lady tonight, President Obama will be able to look up into the Capitol's VIP box at a figurehead from America's biggest innovator for his second straight State of the Union — except after the year Apple's had, maybe it won't be such an awkward thumbs-up to China this time. Last year, Obama nodded to Lauren Powell Jobs as he cited her late husband as nothing less than an example of the modern American dream, saying that the country's economy should be built to support "every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs." The line made sense — Jobs and Apple are the stuff of innovative dreams — but the timing felt strange: Days earlier, The New York Times had dropped its bombshell investigation into why the iPhone never created many American jobs... and why the Chinese jobs it did create didn't live up to American labor standards. It was also kind of weird for Obama to applaud a man who predicted his one-term presidency. But with Cook taking the Jobs memorial seat — and taking Apple in a decidedly pro-American, and officially pro-fair labor, and a relatively different sort of direction overall, this year Apple could be a different kind of icon to Washington. If Obama chooses to reference the world's now-second biggest company again — something the president likes to do — this time Apple will have earned the end of an oxymoron. Here's how:
Apple Is Trying to Make American Jobs Again
Then: When Obama invoked Jobs's spirit in his address last January, he neglected to mention Jobs's reality check — according to the Times story's opening, to bring those iPhone jobs back home was a near impossibility with the efficiency of Foxconn:
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
Why can't that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs's reply was unambiguous. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he said, according to another dinner guest.
Now: By December, Cook had begun to prove Jobs wrong, announcing that Apple would manufacture a line of Macs in the good old United States. That move might prove more symbolic than revitalizing, but others have suggested this is just the beginning of an American manufacturing revolution.
Foxconn Isn't So Horrible Anymore
Then: The Times's iEconomy story would continue to bring the awkward, with another bombshell on the so-called "human cost" of an iPad, which dropped the day after Obama's State of the Union, making Apple look like something of a labor monster. This was before anyone learned that the Foxconn horror stories told by Mike Daisey on This American Life weren't all true, so Apple sure wasn't the Apple of any human-rights advocate's eye.
Now: Apple has made a very concerted effort to clean things up at Foxconn — or at least to make it look like the company cares. Cook went to China, something Jobs never did. Apple mandated raises and better hours. The company recently put out a transparency report showing that it took action when it did find evidence of underage workers in China.
Tim Cook Is Not Steve Jobs
Then: Cook had officially taken over the top spot at Apple in August 2011, but Jobs had only passed away in October and it wasn't clear what, exactly, the Cook era would bring. Early hints showed he would create a more benevolent Apple. But it was just too soon.
Now: With over a year of Cook, it's clear he cares about image in a way Jobs didn't even pretend to care about, in a way that favors international reputation and growth as much as innovative brainchildren and buzz. Cook has been to China twice. In a big interview with Brian Williams he strategically mentioned those American jobs. He happily met with Obama to talk about the fiscal cliff — unlike Jobs, who wouldn't speak with the president without a personal invitation, according to the Walter Isaacson biography.
Even with Cook sitting up next to Michelle Obama, it's not clear whether the President will make another Apple reference anyway. Apple fan-site 9to5Mac, for what it's worth, says an Apple mention is "likely," and Obama has invoked Jobs a few other times. Then again, the last time Obama made a tech reference, he went with a hipper, more up-and-coming — if also oxymoronic reference — in talking up Instagram. Plus, with Apple losing Wall Street cachet, the symbolism might just not be there anymore. Tim Cook's Apple may be State of the Union worthy, alright, but maybe Tim Cook's made Apple smooth enough to blend in with the best.