White House Staff Turnover!

Much ado about a perfectly normal phenomenon.

President Joe Biden prepares to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, June 25, 2021, en route to Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

A bizarre headline from the normally staid AP: “‘Great resignation’ reaches White House with staff turnover

New White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was delivering her third on-camera goodbye to a departing staffer in less than 24 hours when she quipped to reporters, “I promise we will have a press shop.” She added, “Not everyone is leaving.”

It’s a dynamic playing out across the White House complex this month — and more evidence that not even the White House is immune from what has been called “the great resignation” as employers struggle to fill vacancies and workers jump to new jobs at record rates.

The administration is undergoing a period of unusually high staff turnover as President Joe Biden nears 18 months in office. Long hours, low morale and relatively low pay are taking a toll on both the ranks of the senior staff and the more numerous junior aides who keep the White House functioning.

It’s not unusual for staff to turn over at this point in a presidency, but the swiftness of the change has been stark at times: Two-thirds of the White House press shop, much of the COVID-19 response team, two of the deputy counsels to the president, even the staffer who manages the White House Twitter account are all leaving within a few weeks of each other.

Some of it is by design. As is customary, White House staff were told to leave by July or to wait to depart until after the November elections, according to current and former officials.

The “great resignation,” which is almost certainly a media creation rather than an actual phenomenon, referred to people in low-wage jobs impacted by the pandemic refusing to go back to work, at least under their previous wages and conditions. There’s no evidence at all that the Biden White House is having that problem. Indeed, unlike his predecessor, I guarantee you that people are lined up ready to fill these jobs.

Constant turnover is normal on Presidential staffs. The work is exhausting. The hours are long, the pressure is high, and the pay is low. The sort of people sought out for these posts usually leave less burdensome, higher-paying jobs for the privilege of serving the President and helping shape public policy, fully intending to return to the private or nonprofit sector after eighteen months to two years. The only people who typically stay on the whole term are the Cabinet secretaries and other incredibly senior officials in posts that are likely to be the crowning achievement of their careers.

Indeed, the AP report ultimately acknowledges this:

Still, the turnover, particularly within senior ranks, pales in comparison to the turbulent first year of President Donald Trump, who hired and dismissed staff at a record pace. Also, the Biden White House staffing was more stable than many predecessors in its earliest days, making the recent and upcoming exits more noticeable.

That’s just an incredibly weird framing, though. The fact that staff has been unusually stable makes it more, not less, likely that a mass exodus was due. And the fact that—as is custom—they were asked to do so now if they wanted to leave or otherwise hang on through the election means that we would expect it to happen, well, now.

The administration’s spin on this (which I hadn’t read before writing the above) is in fact just a recitation of the facts:

Biden aides insist the departures are not tied to the president’s low poll numbers, but instead reflect a natural transition for staffers — some of whom also toiled long hours on the campaign — looking to improve their quality of life. The aides emphasized that replacements have been secured for most of the departing staff and that no critical roles are going unfilled.

“It’s a normal time for this level of turnover in any administration,” said White House spokesperson Emilie Simons. “Government service involves sacrifice, and staff often have young children or promising careers in the private sector they put on hold, or opportunities for advancement within the administration or through graduate school.”

Indeed. Lower-level posts are often filled by obvious rising stars. My guess is that some will cycle back in a year from now in higher posts. Certainly, if Biden is re-elected or replaced by another Democrat in 2024, even more of them will do so.

Many of the departing aides are heading to federal agencies, which have far deeper pockets than the smaller Executive Office of the President. They can often double their salary and substantially reduce their workload.

Moving to different, higher-paying job in government isn’t “resignation” at all. It’s called having a career.

In many ways the departures echo a broader trend in the economy — which the Biden White House has championed — where a historically tight labor market has given workers abnormal leverage to seek stronger-paying jobs that are more compatible with their post-pandemic lifestyles.

Again, this is just a silly stretch. The sort of people who get positions on Presidential staffs have had enormous leverage and the ability to make much higher salaries elsewhere going back to Alexander Hamilton’s departure from George Washington’s administration.

I suppose there’s something to this:

Veterans of previous West Wings who serve in or are in contact with Biden administration officials say there is a notable lack of joy across the White House complex. The pandemic has diminished some of the benefits of the job that typically make the demands of the work more bearable, they said.

“These aren’t perks in the superficial sense, but they’re moments that build your team, sharpen focus on the mission, and recharge your batteries,” said Eric Schultz, principal deputy White House press secretary at the end of the Obama administration. “Nobody goes to the White House to coast, but the jobs are draining, so inspiration along the way can mean a lot.”

The pandemic meant few birthday parties in the bowling alley in the bowels of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and curtailed the opportunity to give loved ones a tour of the historic workplace. In December, the White House was unable to hold staff holiday parties because of COVID-19, and travel is only just returning to pre-pandemic norms. For Biden’s first year in office, most staff could not even stand on the South Lawn driveway to view the president arrive or depart on Marine One.

The COVID precautions around Biden himself, including testing for those who might encounter him daily, mean many staff members have few personal interactions with their boss. For some departing staff, a highlight of their time in the White House came when former President Barack Obama visited the White House and talked with staff on the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Aides said he spent almost five hours in the building and made a point of mingling with staff — in many cases spending more time with them than Biden has been able to.

Biden, aides said, has restarted one pre-pandemic tradition: accommodating departure photos for staffers and their families who are leaving the administration.

The pandemic, the heightened tensions in the wake of the attempts to steal the election, and the frustrations of Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema pretty much stymying the administration’s legislative agenda have surely made an inherently stressful job even more stressful. But, again, I guarantee that Biden is having no problem finding highly-qualified people to replace departing staffers.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Guess someone was on deadline.

    Saw that headline this AM, checked the date and rolled my eyes and moved on to the next article. Good synopsis and commentary.

    1
  2. I swear there is a list of cliched stories that every major news outlet consults for every campaign season and every presidential administration.

    Apart from the Covid-related stuff you mention, this is almost boilerplate.

    2
  3. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I swear there is a list of cliched stories

    With “Dems in Disarray!!” at the top of the list.

    1
  4. Kathy says:

    Water wet!
    Fire HOT!
    Holes found in Swiss Cheese!!

    1
  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kathy:

    Holes found in Swiss Cheese!!

    In the US, not necessarily. The cheese industry got the rules changed defining ‘Swiss Cheese.’

  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @gVOR08 beat me to it, so I’ll add

    This is Biden’s worst day ever.

    I hope the media understand that the fascists will not be kind to them when they seize power.

    3
  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Over at LGM Paul Campos has a post on that very subject, pointing out real journalism won’t be allowed by the new fascist overlords the media are facilitating. I felt Campos was making unwarranted assumptions. I replied citing J. K. Galbraith who pointed out years ago that shilling for the wealthy and powerful has always paid better than crusading for the truth. I would imagine newspapers and radio were quite profitable under Goebbel’s thumb, especially after Goebbel’s buddies shut down so much of the competition. Journos can see how much money Tucker Carlson makes, and more to the point, their publishers how much Murdoch makes. What’s a little fascism when the Dems might raise taxes on the Sulzbergers and Bezos?

  8. DK says:

    Marginally better than the “Oh noes Washington Post people are fighting on Twitbook!!11!!” nonstory stories.