The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Insiders: Washington is busy, but it’s not productive

The latest issue of Politico magazine includes a story that shocked even me. The piece reports that President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had “zero” one-on-one meetings between July 12, 2010 and November 30, 2013.

While that fact is shocking on its face, it is a good example of a persistent problem in Washington. That is, it is easy to be busy, but it is hard to be productive. This is especially true if your job is in the West Wing of the White House. You don’t have to do anything and your inbox will fill up, a lot of people will want to see you, and you will be asked to attend a lot of meetings. Before you know it, you will be “working” 16 hours a day. This phenomenon suits many in Washington because, for a lot of people, it’s all about having the job, not necessarily doing the job. Perhaps this attitude captures the president’s approach to his role. After all, the White House and the rest of the administration ultimately reflects the personality of the president.

The fact is, for much of the time, government runs itself — except when it doesn’t or when there is a surprise crisis. If you don’t have the right people in place and haven’t done the right planning, you can’t execute. And presto, you have a Katrina or red lines in Syria or Obamacare or whatever.

I’m sure President Obama and Secretary Sebelius have both been “working” very hard. But really, they have just been busy. Obviously they haven’t been productive. Everybody in Washington is busy these days, even though not much is getting done.

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