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Departing aide expects more assertive Obama in second term

Nominee for Director of the White House Office for Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle speaks after being introduced by U.S. President Barack Ob
Nominee for Director of the White House Office for Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle speaks after being introduced by U.S. President Barack Ob

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans should expect a more assertive President Barack Obama in his second term as he faces tough battles with Republicans, one of his top aides said on Thursday.

Nancy-Ann Deparle, deputy White House chief of staff and one of the highest-ranking women in the White House, is leaving Friday after four years as an architect of Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul.

In a farewell interview in her West Wing office steps away from the Oval Office, Deparle expressed confidence that the healthcare law is being implemented as planned, is cutting healthcare costs and is slowly but surely on track despite many concerns about it from some Republican governors.

Deparle dismissed concerns raised by some that the president is turning his back on diversity by failing to nominate a woman to one of the three top Cabinet positions, with white males picked to head the departments of State, Defense and Treasury.

"I've never experienced that from the president. I‘ve always felt that he is surrounded by strong women," she said.

In the days before starting his second term on Monday, Obama has signaled a more confrontational approach to dealing with Republicans by insisting, for example, that he will not negotiate over a rise in the debt ceiling and by approving 23 executive actions that do not need congressional approval to try to reduce gun violence.

Deparle predicted more such executive actions in Obama's second term and more efforts to engage the American people on what is at stake for them.

"I think you will see a more assertive approach to enlisting the American people to help with getting the change that we want from Congress," she said.

She pointed to a number of executive steps that Obama took last year under the "we can't wait" program of pushing ahead with items that do not need congressional approval.

"I think you'll see more of his flexing his authority to use executive action, to take executive action in areas so he can do everything he can," Deparle said.

Deparle, then working at a private equity firm, was a reluctant Obama hire who ultimately succumbed to the entreaties of then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to sign on to the Obama team in early 2009 and help pursue the new president's dream of a healthcare overhaul.

The arm-twisting finally worked and Deparle found herself trying to persuade Democrats from various congressional committees to work together to frame the landmark legislation. She helped form a "Bi-Cam" team that eventually emerged of Democratic House and Senate staff members. They still meet weekly.

DEBT CEILING DEAL SEEN

The Affordable Health Care Act is Obama's signature first-term achievement but it still faces opposition. Some Republican governors have balked at setting up the "exchange" programs that will function as a marketplace for health insurance buyers and give them choices for health coverage.

If states refuse, purchasers must go to the federal government for help.

"We always operated on the assumption that we would end up running the exchange at least for the first year for a number of states. We assumed that about half the population that would be coming in would be coming to the federal exchange," she said.

Deparle, whose initial one-year commitment to Obama's White House turned into four, is now leaving to become a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

She is departing just as another budget battle is brewing with congressional Republicans, with the United States to reach its debt limit of $16.4 trillion in February.

Deparle said she expects that after "lots of agitation" that Republican leaders will agree to raise the debt limit, in much the same way a last-gasp agreement was reached around New Year's Day to avoid a tax increase on middle-class Americans.

She rejected the notion that Obama is not willing to socialize with his political opponents, saying he invited many to the White House for a screening of the movie "Lincoln," with actor Daniel Day Lewis, actress Sally Field and director Steven Spielberg in attendance.

"I mean, Lincoln was a Republican. They wouldn't come," she said.

Deparle is one of the only White House political appointees to have served the last three Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama.

During frequent campaign travels last year, she got to know the military aides who carry the briefcase containing the codes for launching nuclear weapons, the so-called "football."

Their goodbye gift to her? A real football, signed by the military aides.

(Reporting By Steve Holland. Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)

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