April 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Michigan's West Wing connection

Ann Arbor native is at Obama's side

President-elect Barack Obama and Eugene Kang play golf in Hawaii in December. While on the campaign bus, Kang says he and Obama would wistfully look out the window as they sped by golf courses. "The president actually has a really good golf swing," Kang says. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Washington -- Feel like chatting with President Barack Obama on the phone? Then Eugene Kang is your guy.

The 25-year-old Ann Arbor native is also Obama's "special projects coordinator," putting together events like last month's White House regional health care forum in Dearborn.

And his golf skills came in handy in December when he took to the links in Hawaii with the president.

Although Kang lacks the policy clout of Asian-Americans serving in the Cabinet, his role in the Obama White House has made him something of a mini-celebrity in the Korean-American community.

Kang shuttles between tasks for the president in the West Wing and organizing events in the political affairs shop in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He sets up phone calls to everyone from a governor to a grassroots activist.

His typical 13-hour days have one goal: Make sure the president hears what's going on in the real world and doesn't feel trapped in a White House bubble.

"I meet with the office of political affairs every morning," he said, where he and other aides make calls to get "a sense of what's going on in the country. How is the budget (for example) being responded to by folks?"

That outreach, he explained, "ties into my job of which calls the president makes. To make sure he is kind of getting that opinion outside the Beltway."

Role model for immigrants

The son of immigrants who settled down in Ann Arbor, Kang has become a symbol within the Korean-American community of how immigrants' dreams can come true for their children, says Khee Lee, co-founder of the Korean Beacon Web site.

"When we look at our Web traffic data, we can see that Kang is the No. 1 political figure that people coming to our site search for," Lee said.

"The reason there is so much interest in Kang is that he symbolizes how this generation of Korean-Americans is finally becoming more integrated in American society. He shows that you can be in politics, not just retailing or medicine. He's become a role model for young Korean-Americans -- that you can be what you want to be."

Kang's 'got game'

Ann Lin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said Kang's success demonstrates to Korean-American parents that they were right to believe that their children could have limitless prospects in America.

"Kang is really abuzz in the Korean-American community because he symbolizes the American dream of immigrants. Because Kang made it, their kids can, too," she said.

Kang is one of 1.3 million Korean-Americans, including 23,705 in Michigan, according to the 2007 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. The population has surged in recent decades, Lin says, because of a change in U.S. immigration law in 1965 that opened the doors wider for non-Europeans. Kang's parents came to America in 1969.

Lin says Kang embodies the belief of first-generation Korean-Americans that if they stressed hard work and education, their children could succeed in any field.

Korean-Americans identify with Kang, she said, rather than powerful Asian-Americans in the Obama administration, including Cabinet members Gary Locke, the secretary of Commerce, and Steven Chu, the secretary of Energy, both of whom are Chinese-American, and Gen. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, who is Japanese-American.

He's also generating a buzz in his parents' native land. The Korea Times ran a story about Kang, along with a photo of him golfing with the president and the headline, "Obama's Korean-American advisor 'Got Game.' "

And it's not just the Korean community that is taking notice of Kang.

When the Huffington Post ran an online poll asking who's the "hottest" person working in the White House, Kang ranked fifth.

His bachelor status adds to the intrigue.

Early interest in politics

Kang's journey to the White House began when he developed an interest in politics while growing up in Ann Arbor.

In the summer of 2002, before his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he was an intern on the re-election campaign of Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn.

At U-M, he felt frustrated that there were no student voices on the City Council. So he ran in 2005 -- and lost by 90 votes.

The City Council "was I thought at the time kind of in need for a younger voice," Kang recalled. "There were a lot of wonky reasons -- the millages kept going up, the services kept getting cut -- that I just felt (being on the City Council) would be a great way just to learn more about the process and to just try my hand and see if (politics) might be something I could succeed in."

After college, in the spring of 2007, he landed a job in Chicago working in the political affairs shop of the early Obama campaign.

He drummed up support for Obama among Asian-Americans, traveled with Obama, and even carried the candidate's cell phone -- nicknamed "the Bat phone."

He recalls long days and nights on the campaign bus, when he and Obama would wistfully look out the window as they sped by golf courses, vowing that once the campaign was behind them, they'd hit the links.

And while the golf game did finally happen, his most special moment, he says, came when he first walked into the Oval Office.

"Seeing (Obama) behind that desk, to see the payoff of all the work we had done," Kang said. "To see him in place where he was getting to start making real all the things we had talked about during the campaign ... that was definitely a 'pinch me' moment. I couldn't quite believe I was standing in that room."

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President-elect Barack Obama and Eugene Kang play golf in Hawaii in ... (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)