(The Root) — Actor-activist Kal Penn fits the dual description better than most. The 35-year-old star of films, including the Harold & Kumar comedies and the acclaimed drama The Namesake, left a recurring role on TV’s House for the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he worked on the Obama administration’s youth outreach. Penn, an Indian American born in New Jersey, was also a liaison with the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. Penn’s White House duties lasted from 2009 through 2011, with a break in 2010 to film A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.
Now Penn is back on the campaign trail he traveled in the last presidential contest, recently stopping in North Carolina to talk with the young voters President Obama counted on in 2008 in order to narrowly win the battleground state, and whose votes he needs for a 2012 repeat.
Though Penn still juggles acting and politics and will be working on a TV pilot called the Ex-Men for CBS (“It’s not a superhero project; it’s about four guys who get dumped by their girlfriends”), his current focus, as a co-chair of Obama’s re-election campaign, is winning a second term for the president. The Root caught up with him earlier this month at an Obama for America office in Charlotte, where he will return next month for the Democratic National Convention.
The Root: How do you generate the enthusiasm of 2008 among young voters?
Kal Penn: We’re making sure they’re properly registered, making sure they have resources like knowing about the GottaVote website, knowing what events we have coming up if they want to get more involved … If last night was any indication, we had a field office open in Raleigh, and it was standing room only, no room in the parking lot, and it was mostly young people.
They understand the importance of all the successes we’ve had under the president. A lot of times, [those successes have] been underreported, too, so they’re really learning about it through word of mouth, through Twitter, through social media.
TR: What are young voters concerned about, and what is your message to them?
KP: The top things that we’re hearing are, obviously, jobs and the economy, and the recovery has been important to them. But their friends are now home from Iraq; the marriage-equality piece was hugely important to young people on both sides of the aisle; 3.1 million of them now have access to health care … And then the driver behind all that is education; they don’t want to move backward. The president was able to double the Pell Grant, create the American Opportunity Tax Credit [a credit for post-secondary-education expenses]. Young people seem to be very keenly aware of the stakes.
TR: Republicans are courting the South Asian vote, with conservative GOP governors of South Asian descent — Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — acting as visible and prominent Mitt Romney surrogates. What is President Obama’s message to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities?