Daniel W. Drezner

News flash — White House jobs are exhausting

News flash — White House jobs are exhausting

We’ve hit the eighteen-month mark of the Obama presidency, which means that articles like this one are going to start appearing with more and more frequency:

Linda Douglass slept nearly 12 hours the day after she left her job as a communications aide at the White House. And the day after that and the day after that. It took two weeks until she finally felt rested.

“I got to the point where I was almost traumatized by how hard I was working and how much stress I was feeling all the time,” Ms. Douglass recalled.

When she resigned, she said: “I felt like a real burden was lifted from my shoulders. I was really surprised how exhausted I was when I left.”

Eighteen months into President Obama’s term, some of the first-generation team that arrived with him at the White House are moving on. One by one, usually with little fanfare, they have turned in White House badges and BlackBerrys to rejoin the outside world, some eagerly seeking the exit, others unhappily shown the door.

Even in calmer times, the White House is a pressure cooker that can quickly burn out the most idealistic aides, but it may be even more so in an administration that inherited an economic collapse and two wars — and then decided to overhaul the nation’s health care system for good measure. Add to that the nonstop, partisan intensity of the e-mail-Internet-cable era, and it takes a toll.

The article focuses on White House officials in particular, but this problem extends to the cabinet departments as well.  Executive branch burnout is a bipartisan phenomenon (no matter what Victor David Hanson thinks), and as the article notes, the real-time news cycle is only making things worse.  This is particularly true on the foreign policy beat.  Even if it’s 3 AM in Washington, it’s 6 PM somewhere else, and someone is doing something that will require an American response. 

In my experience, most normal people can survive this kind of policy pressure cooker for 18-24 months before losing it just a little bit.  From selection effects, we know that high-ranking policymakers on either side of the aisle can process greater quantities of coffee more efficiently than the rest of us are mentally and physically prepared for longer terms of service.  Still, after four years, even policy principals will find their brains going to mush (as one professor-turned-policy-principal put it to me, your stock of intellectual capital starts to erode the moment you enter public office). 

On its own, this phenomenon wouldn’t be that big of a deal — indeed, some personnel churn is likely a good thing, prevents groupthink and all that.  The problem is that this trend is intersecting with another one — the increasing length of time it takes to appoint and confirm high-level personnel (and I’d just like to thank the Senate for making my point today).  With greater fixed costs involved in vetting and sheparding people through the confirmation process, presidents will be exceedingly reluctant to let these people go, which means that many of them will stay on for longer than perhaps they should. 

There’s no magic bullet here, but it’s a problem that’s going to fester until some cabinet official decides that they’ve had enough and take the emergency exit. 

UPDATE:  James Joyner wonders how much of the burnout problem is self-inflicted, a West Wingization of the West Wing:

Some of this is, I think, a spillover from the “West Wing” television program.  It reinforced the mindset that, if you weren’t killing yourself, you weren’t working hard enough.   And it’s just nonsense.

National Security Advisor Jim Jones was getting sniped at in the press by subordinates annoyed that he clocked out at a reasonable hour most nights and had the temerity to go for a run during his lunch breaks.  His retort, basically, was that anyone working 12 hour days was probably pretty inefficient.

I’m with Jones (disclosure: formerly my boss’ boss).   Sure, there are legitimate crises that require burning the midnight oil.  But, contrary to the mythology of Washington, every damned thing isn’t a crisis.

But, alas, we have a mutually reinforcing arms race where staffers compete with one another to see who can get in earliest and stay latest.  And the culture also dictates that, if the boss is there, no one else can go home.  That, even if the thing the boss is doing doesn’t require additional staff support.

The upshot of all this isn’t just burnout but bad decision-making. 

Joyner might be right, but I’d point out that based on first-hand accounts of pre-West Wing West Wing staffers, this is not a new problem