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Can You Have Your Country and a Life?

I had the great opportunity to spend some time in our nation’s Capitol recently. I bring an air of nostalgia to the city every time I visit, as I lived there on two separate occasions during the Clinton Administration.  Once, I worked for him in his press office.  The second time, I worked to cover him at ABCNews.

The White House

The sun sets, but many are still working

It’s not defusing bombs in Iraq.  It’s not putting in 12 hours of assembly line work, which sounds mind-numbing. Unless that assembly line turns out the food you eat or the car you drive and you pray that the minds at work are not numb, but sharp.  One thing I will tell you is that our Executive branch continues to be one of the hardest working group of cubicle inhabiters out there.  My proof?  Read on.

A friend of my husband works at the White House in a military capacity.  He showed us around the Eisenhower Executive Office Building around 9pm on a Friday night.  Most Americans were doing any number of things–continuing the happy hour that started 4 hours earlier, putting kids to bed, worried about kids who weren’t home yet, or maybe getting ready for that third shift job that pays double on the weekends.

Say Goodbye to Happy Hour

Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Most White House employees work here

There was a large group of people who were just leaving work or still working in the Executive Branch of government.  One person in the White House Counsel’s office, a couple of 20-somethings closing up the communication’s office, and a few taking a coffee break outside the Cantine.  There were still cars in the parking lot when we left.  Close to 10p.m.

For all the “cushy” government 9-5 paper pushing jobs that exist, you can be sure that few of them exist on the White House campus under Obama’s watch.  You might say I’m biased, having worked there before and being an open Democrat.  But I have a defense.  I worked 12-14 hour days and I was happy to do so because of the greater implications way down or up the food chain my work could have.  It was a heady time–early 20s, lots of friends, no husband or kids.  In fact, in our group of about 10, only one was married.

Lately, there have been criticisms of the perception of “work-life balance” in the Obama White House.  The President seems to get it, having dinner with his girls every night while his advisers barely see their families.  David Axelrod, who has a daughter with epilepsy and brain damage, only sees his family in Chicago once a month. Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff, debated taking his job since the arrival of 3 children, priorities which didn’t exist during his 15 hour days with the Clinton administration.  It’s about choices, and they’re not easy ones.

Obama’s intent to make the White House “family friendly,” really only applies to his family.  Take-home laptops for top aides don’t end up helping that much.

Art Imitates Life

Family versus country?  They’re not exactly mutually exclusive.

Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker (Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment)

In the Oscar winning film, “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner’s character, Staff Sergeant William Jones, [SPOILER ALERT] chooses country over family.  Through the film, his character is portrayed as a bit of a swashbuckler.  But when it comes to decision time, it’s clear his choice isn’t made in haste.

Many military families accept this way of life for decades–that someone in the family has the struggle between family and country.  Sometimes family can come along.  Sometimes family gets through a year with emails and webcams, missing first steps or friends’ weddings.  The family’s pride for their loved one and their country helps them through.  There’s support for military families, to be sure. But it’s still hard.

Other Agencies Make it Work–Just Not the Big One

The government as a whole provides high levels of job satisfaction.  The Partnership for Public Service and American university’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation (ISPPI) conducts regular studies.  Based on responses of 212,000 employees in 278 federal organizations and agencies, of the top 31 agencies reporting on work/life balance, 20 reported increases work/life balance as compared to 2007.  The top 10 include 4 cabinet agencies: Treasury, Education, Energy, and Commerce, all who reported changes for the better of .7-4.6%.

I don’t think it’s a partisan thing–but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that President Bush spent 487 days at Camp David and 490 over 77 trips to his ranch in Texas.  I’m all in favor of “working vacations” and “working at home,” but being a writer at home is different than being President.

There’s no clear or right answer.  Do we work our government to burn-out or make honest efforts to ensure work-life balance for some hard-working Americans?  Do we tell them to suck it up?  What is truly better for our country?

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