It's Time to Ignore the Paralyzing Cynicism and Get Engaged

Before I met President Obama, I was always cynically independent when it came to politics. Like a lot of other young people with different views on different issues, I never considered myself to be either a Democrat or Republican. I still don't. But having had the honor to serve in this president's White House for two years, one thing that dissipated from my mind is the sense of cynicism that existed before. Now, I know that it might sound nuts to hear someone say that they're less cynical today than they were 2 years ago, even after having seen first-hand the chaos in Congress. But my reasons have to do with also having seen first-hand President Obama's strong convictions in action behind the scenes, and watching those convictions overcome partisan bickering to fulfill some really big promises.

Flash back to 2008, when President-elect Obama won with an overwhelming majority of young voters on a promise to make college more affordable, fix a broken health care system, bring our buddies home from Iraq, and make sure that our gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members could serve openly in the military. I remember thinking "all of these things make common sense to me. The system must be so broken on both sides of the aisle if no previous president succeeded in changing it already. I want to help this guy get elected. It's now or never."

Fast forward to September 2011. In just three years as president, and against tremendous odds, Barack Obama ended Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He's been bringing service members home from Iraq. He got financial aid reform passed, increased the Pell Grant, and increased the American Opportunity Tax Credit to $2500 -- all so that college is more affordable. And he passed the Affordable Care Act, which has made quality and affordable health care available while also lowering costs. Lots of good people said none of this could be done. Others even said it shouldn't be done. But the president -- with the help of young Americans - fought hard to get it done. Working as part of the White House team when these pieces of legislation came to fruition is and will likely remain one of my greatest honors.

The news media rarely cover good stories about youth issues these days, but recently, several outlets did report on the success of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on young adults. Since the bill's passage in 2010, nearly one million more young adults have obtained health care coverage. By giving people under 26 the security of knowing they can use their parents' insurance policies, our generation will no longer be at the mercy of insurance companies and won't have to go without health coverage as we start our careers. These reported numbers of newly insured young people are incredible, and clearly illustrate how President Obama's vision for a country with quality and affordable health care for all is becoming a reality.

Despite these big steps in the right direction, our work is far from over. If some members of Congress or other presidential contenders get their way and repeal important legislation such as The Affordable Care Act, or reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell, these positive changes will be taken away from millions of Americans who have new found security. It broke my heart when I watched the Republican presidential debates and saw some people in the audience applaud the notion that young Americans without health care should be left to die. It saddened me this week when they booed a brave service member fighting for us overseas just because he happens to be gay. Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent like me, our generation cannot let the president's strong vision be undone after everything we have fought for and won. We inherited debt, wars, a bickering political system, and a dangerous growing gap between those at the very top and everyone else. But we have achieved incredible successes, and have so much more left to still do. It's not right to roll that back.

I've been motivated by the reality that progress is possible with a leader who understands what's at stake. But progress is never easy, which is all the more reason to keep a focus on positivity and abandon cynicism. President Obama hasn't been able to change Washington overnight, we know that. And if the last few years are any indication, he certainly can't do it alone. I stand with the president to help move America forward in the hopes that when we do stand together we see more and more of our peers benefiting from their own hard work. Now is the time to ignore the paralyzing cynicism and get engaged. I hope you'll join me.

Kal Penn is an actor and producer based in Los Angeles. He served as an Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2009-2011, and was the President's Liaison to Young Americans. He is currently a volunteer with Obama for America 2012.