A real Beltway story: Executive branch turnover

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Washington, D.C. is reeling from another tragic mass shooting in America, this time in the heart of D.C. itself, in Southeast, at the U.S. Navy Yard, home to the Chief of Naval Operations. It seems likely that the political class will, instead of pursue vigorous gun control legislation as one might reasonably expect, distract themselves with a possible government shutdown.

The horrific shooting — and the unforgivable lack of political will to do anything to prevent the next shooting — is a very real public policy and political story. The bone-headed possible government shutdown (the subtext of which is de-funding the Affordable Care Act) is also a very real policy and political story.

However, I think there is another political story happening, and it’s worth talking about.

A few days ago, I wrote about the departure of Gene Sperling, head of the White House National Economic Council. Today we learned of the imminent departure of White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. Like Sperling, I believe the policy impact of the departing of Ruemmler — who has been with President Obama since day one — will ultimately be felt by everyone. And most American’s don’t even know her name. 

Over at the penultimate Beltway publication The Hill, they are reporting that Obama is calling in the “first-term A-Team”. Why?

Former Obama aides and other political observers say that, while the White House is chock full of talent, the campaign-type mentality of first-term aides who sought to win every messaging cycle is missing.

But why seems less important than the timing.  

A paper published in 2009 by the National Academy of Public Administration noted that “the average tenure of Senate-confirmed appointees is only 3.3 years, while appointees at executive departments generally spend only 2.8 years in a single post.” 

Given what we know about tenure and political appointments, the departures of Sperling and Ruemmler are not at all surprising. They’ve both been at the White House for longer than the average executive department appointee stays on. In fact, about twice as long.  

I would expect we’ll see more mid- and high-level departures over the course of the next year. There is no doubt much of it will be presented as reflecting “Obama’s struggles,” but I would be wary of easy frames. These are hard-working people doing an incredibly difficult job — but they also have families to provide for, lives to lead beyond the short-sighted political cycles.