Kal Penn visits the University in Obama campaign event

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Kal Penn tweets a photo of the crowd as part of Obama for America's Young Americans’ Greater Together Summit Tour, which came to campus on March 8.. Buy this photo

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 9, 2012

While the discussion at President Barack Obama’s campaign event in the Michigan Union Ballroom was focused on the president’s re-election efforts, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) couldn’t refrain from cracking a joke about the guest of honor, Kal Penn — known for playing Kumar Patel in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” and Dr. Lawrence Kutner in “House.”

“Kal, you’re a great example of a young person who has dedicated his time, and his efforts to helping this country, and your president. And most importantly, the public perception of White Castle,” Dingell said.

Penn, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008, and held the position of associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2009 until 2011. Penn joined Dingell; Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, and Broderick Johnson, a senior adviser to Obama and a Law School alum, in a discussion before Obama supporters and University students last night.

The event was the latest stop on Young Americans for Obama’s Greater Together Student Summit Tour — a series of events held on college campuses across the nation to promote student participation in the upcoming election and to boost Obama’s re-election campaign.

Students at the event were told of ways they could contribute to the campaign, such as donating money, volunteering and urging friends and classmates to vote for Obama. Campaign workers staffed tables outside the ballroom so students could sign up to volunteers for the campaign.

The forum also included two University students — LSA freshman Pavitra Abraham, a campus organizer for the Obama campaign in Ann Arbor, and Business junior Taqee Vernon, the spokesman for the Black Student Union — Matt Kerry, a student at the University’s Dearborn campus, also participated. The three students shared personal stories about why they decided to support Obama.

Penn said he decided to join the Obama campaign primarily because he was bothered the handling of national affairs by former President George W. Bush, noting examples of how faulty policy negatively impacted his friends.

Specifically, Penn said Bush’s lack of priorities were exemplified by one friend of his who couldn’t afford eyeglasses due to financial strife, while another friend of his was offered a $90,000 contract to work for the organization formerly known as Halliburton, a defense contractor, in Iraq.

“I thought it was absolutely crazy that my friends had to make a decision in the world’s richest, most powerful country, to make a decision between a minimum wage job and 90-grand for driving a truck through a warzone for a private company, or eyeglasses or textbooks,” Penn said. “To me, that seemed nuts.”

Penn said he learned about what youth voters cared about by working as Obama’s youth liaison.

“I realized that most young people, regardless of their political affiliations, agreed on quite a lot,” Penn said.

He added that it is important Obama is re-elected so that he can continue to strengthen achievements made during his first term.

“It was a distinct honor to serve the president as he doubled the Pell Grant, created the American Opportunity Tax Credit, repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ending the war in Iraq — taking care of bin Laden wasn’t so bad — and making sure that 2.5 million young Americans could stay on their parent’s health-insurance plan,” Penn said.

In an interview with the Daily after the event, Penn said though he understands that though citizens may be cynical about the political climate in America, Obama is a better choice compared to the current field of Republican challengers.

During the panel, Dingell lauded the importance of college students in comprising the American workforce of the future.

“You’re only 25 percent of the population, but you’re 100 percent of our future,” Dingell said.

Dingell criticized Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum for recent comments in opposition to Obama’s priority on increasing college affordability.

“(Santorum) said President Obama was a snob for wanting everyone to go to college,” Dingell said. “Well I was of that generation that fought in World War II, and we came back and they gave us an education to thank us for what we did for our country. It was great for us, but it was even better for the country.”

Kerry, who accepted a job as a field manager for the Obama campaign, became paralyzed from a dive into shallow water several years ago. Kerry spoke about how his family ran into financial issues following his accident, noting that he is grateful for Obama’s work toward passing the Affordable Care Act.

“I no longer have to worry about my pre-existing condition in the future. I can’t be dropped from plan for my condition,” Kerry said. “Even more than that, tens of millions of young Americans will have insurance now.”