What’s it like to advise the president of the United States?

 

“It’s sobering. You have to be very precise in things you do know and things you don’t know.…I think he values my opinion, in part, because of my Tennessee background.”

Like many Americans, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle (’78) has a lot on her mind these days—from the economy to education to national security. However, unlike many of her fellow citizens, it’s actually DeParle’s job to ponder these issues and give advice about them.

And did we mention she works for the president of the United States?

nancyThere are no typical days when you work at the White House. It’s one of the many things DeParle loves about her job as President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff. In November 2011, she spent ten days at the president’s side during his Asian-Pacific trip, which included a state dinner in Australia.

After Thanksgiving break, she was back in Washington, DC, meeting with the president for budget discussions and working to find executive actions the president can take—without congressional approval—to spur job growth and address problems such as college affordability.

According to DeParle, keeping up with the daily flow of work is quite the challenge. Her to-do list is an “executive dashboard” broken down into six major categories, such as domestic policy, the economy, and national security. Included in each of those categories are twenty or more issues DeParle is responsible for tracking—all at one time.

Though new issues come up every day, DeParle knows that keeping on top of the issues and having the most current information will help the president do his job.

“We’re shaping policy so that the president has maximum flexibility to make a decision that is in keeping with what he thinks is best for the American people,” she says.

It’s a bad day if something happens to slip by and puts the president on the spot.

“If he’s spent all day at a European summit, the last thing he needs is for me to walk in his office at the end of the day asking him to very quickly make a decision about something,” DeParle says. “Presidential decisions are never easy.”

And when the president asks for her advice, DeParle knows how important it is to separate the facts from her opinions. It’s something she says she learned at UT and honed during law school at Harvard.

“Be very precise in things you know and things you don’t know,” she says. “It’s tempting to give an answer quickly, but his [the president’s] time is so valuable.”

DeParle says it’s a very sobering experience to advise a powerful person like the president, and she believes that he trusts her, in part, because of her Tennessee background. She grew up in Rockwood and earned her undergraduate degree in history from UT. She made it through school with Pell grants from the federal government, financial help from the university, her mother’s veterans benefits, and by working in the kitchen at Smokey’s in the UC.

“He knows that I grew up without a lot of privileges,” she says. “He trusts me to give him an honest view based on those practicalities…one that is pragmatic, not theoretical.”

As someone fascinated by history, DeParle finds it especially meaningful to be part of some of the things she studied at UT. She recalls reading historical documents, like memos to past presidents, and wondering if she was interpreting them correctly. Now, she is the one writing those memos.

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