West Wingization of the West Wing

Senior staffers are already leaving the Obama administration due to burn-out. But are 18-hour days really necessary for running the White House?

NYT features the plight of those who work for the president in a story titled “The First Wave of Weary Aides Heads for the Exits.” Here’s the lede:

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.”

The nut ‘graph:

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.


White House officials show up for work at 7 a.m., go home at, say, 8 p.m. and find themselves on e-mail until they fall asleep, often six or seven days a week. Mr. Orszag told friends that he felt liberated now having only one BlackBerry.

“I was never off my BlackBerry — ever,” said Ms. Douglass, who was spokeswoman for the health care drive. At dinner, even with her husband, she would sneak to the bathroom or keep it in her lap. “It was just the three of us — him, me and my BlackBerry. I felt like I was losing friendships.”

Dan Drezner thinks this all a blinding flash of the obvious but still thinks it’s a bad system.

Executive branch burnout is a bipartisan phenomenon, 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.


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.  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 goes down the emergency chute.

No doubt.  But I wonder how much of this is the necessary rigor of the job and how much is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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.  We’ve known for decades from studies of military performance that leaders actually need more rest than their subordinates, even though all the pressures are in the other direction.   But a soldier can march for two days without sleep and still fire his weapon effectively, so long as he doesn’t do it too often.   A tired leader, meanwhile, starts making worse decisions pretty quickly.

One wonders, too, whether this doesn’t all contribute to the culture of incivility that everyone is always going on about.   If everyone’s tired and grumpy and stressed out all the time, it’s hard to be cordial.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The one thing about The West Wing that always used to bug me is the idea that those people never seemed to sleep. It would be 11pm at night and the DCoS’s office would be as busy as you’d expect it to be at 3 in the afternoon. Considering that, in that fictitional White House, the Deputy Chief of Staff was dealing almost exclusively with domestic policy, that’s just completely insane.

    And if the job of White House Staffers has become so busy that they get burned out after 18 months, maybe they’re doing too much.

  2. mike says:

    I remember reading about this in the book Fiasco or one of those books on the Iraq war where people were questioning some of the Army leadership and their functioning on 3 and 4 hours sleep a night for months on end – this was being contrasted with the leaders in WWII who would stop working around 8pm to watch a movie and go to bed. I guess with modern communications and 24/7 news etc there is no end of a work day.
    i think for a lot of the staffers though, it is thing to brag about – “i work 18 hours a day how about you”. My experience has been that those who brag about how much they work, don’t do very much while at work.
    As Scrooge McDuck said “work smarter, not harder”

  3. JKB says:

    So the bunch of overachiever control freaks that the Whitehouse attracts are learning that you can’t control everything, can’t be involved in everything and must pick your battles.  Of course, unless you’re the big dog, any attempt to manage your resources is used as an inroad to pick at in the incessant internal politics.  In fact, it seems even the big dogs are vulnerable given the anecdote about Jones.  Hey, if these busybodies who want to run everyone else’s lives burn out an end up in the looney bin, well, that is a benefit for the common people.
    I learned early on that unless controlled, people would come at you from all directions and if permitted, play you like a pinball all over the table.  Key was to react in your own time not theirs, even when faster was better just to show them they couldn’t spin you.  Sadly, it seems the panic purveyors in this White House are at the top so measured response is more difficult.  I mean, who wants a naked Rahm coming after them.
    Oh and all the “teamwork” that is all the rage in the universities.  Well, having 5 overachievers roughly coordinating their efforts isn’t the same as organizing 5 people to overlap and complement each other in cooperation so they are as effective as 50.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Many, many years ago I had a manager who was addicted to his own adrenaline.  He maintained a crisis atmosphere because that’s how he felt most comfortable. I think that’s the source of the problem that’s being described here.  People at the top actually find the excitement physically necessary.

  5. Zathras says:

    Interesting comment.  When I worked on the Hill, lengthy days that ended in the wee hours were not uncommon.  Not infrequently, they were the most pleasurable and productive.  In the middle of the night, you didn’t have to deal with constituents, and you could hide out from lobbyists on the floor or in the office.  And the big decisions about issues in dispute — the ones that determined whether legislation would pass or not — were often made late at night with only legislators and a few staff around.  Finally, most of the legislators I was familiar with preferred not to have their entire staff around during late night sessions.  If you were on call yourself, it often meant you had at least a chance of making a contribution, the main source of fun in government work.
    Of course, nights like this never happened when Congress was out, so what I’ve described is not quite the same thing as the “West Wing” syndrome.