Voice

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 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner

I'm not sure Congress has thought this through

Appropos of yesterday's blog post, I see that Matthew Yglesias, Rob Farley, and Kindred Winecoff have all posted thoughts about how to get the U.S. policymakers to better understand the domestic politics of other countries.  Farley makes a particularly trenchant point: 

It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.

Winecoff concurs:

Farley is absolutely right that the academic community has made greater strides than the policy community in this way. That doesn't mean that anything has been conclusively decided; many of the most discussed/cited works are also the most disdained. But where progress has been made it's been by analyzing how domestic political constraints can cause leaders to act in ways that are, quite frankly, perplexing to outside audiences....

I've never felt it was my place to proffer policy advice, even into the seldom-read tubespace that this blog lives in. But the last half-century of American foreign policy reveals, to me, the importance of disaggregating the politics of foreign regimes, of closely examining political structures and constraints in other places, and of crafting nuanced policy that takes those factors into account. This is much harder than blustering, of course, but also much more beneficial.

I'll have more thoughts on this later, but towards that end, let's discuss the stupidity of Congress' latest foray into foreign policy waters:

Several members of Congress have moved to block United States aid to the Lebanese military, saying they are concerned that it may be working with Hezbollah in light of last week’s deadly skirmish between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers on the border between the two countries.

The United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Lebanese armed forces in recent years, but members of Congress have often expressed unease that the weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement that fought a monthlong war with Israel in the summer of 2006.

Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put a hold on $100 million in appropriations to the Lebanese Army on Aug. 2, a day before the border clash, and expressed further concerns on Monday.

“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the L.A.F. — and can assure that the L.A.F. is a responsible actor — I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” Mr. Berman said in a statement.

At least three other members of Congress have placed holds on the money or called for the Obama administration to review military aid to Lebanon, including Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York, and two Republicans, Representatives Howard P. McKeon of California and Eric Cantor of Virginia. A hold has no legal effect on the aid, which has already been appropriated, but it is rare for an administration to ignore one.

Now, I understand the Congressional impulse to do something here -- I really do.  What I don't understand is how Congress thinks that withholding aid from the Lebanese military will weaken Hezbollah.  Congress seems to think that anything that aids the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will concomitantly aid Hezbollah.  The latter group, however, has independent sources of financial, political and military support.  It's better to think of the LAF as a competing power base than as a conduit to Hezbollah.  Anything that weakens national institutions in Lebanon empowers the groups that can survive in a more anarchical environment -- and gee, whaddaya know, that would include Hezbollah. 

It's possible that these thoughts have passed through the staff of Berman, Cantor, Lowey and McKeon.  It's also possible that these staffers simply sad "f*** it, this will look like our member of Congress is doing something."  I can certainly respect the raw political calculation involved here.  But it's a stupid, counterproductive move in terms of the national interest -- and they should know better.