While first lady Michelle Obama continues sightseeing and shopping in southern Spain with her daughter Sasha and friends as "private" tourists, questions are being raised about the cost to taxpayers and whether a lavish vacation
sends the right message during tough economic times in the United States.
Mrs. Obama also has a "public" part of the vacation, but it's hardly heavy lifting and without any formal agenda. On Sunday, Mrs. Obama and 9-year-old Sasha will have lunch with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia at their summer palace on the island of Majorca.
This trip is sparking the first controversy Mrs. Obama has faced since becoming first lady. While Mrs. Obama covers her personal expenses, taxpayers pay for security and support staffers, plus most costs associated with her Air Force plane.
CBS News has run two storie
s -- on its Thursday evening newscast and on Friday morning -- examining the public costs of Mrs. Obama's travels. ABC did a piece Friday morning about Mrs. Obama and Sasha buying matching sundresses, the ritzy resort they visited and the heavy coverage of the visit by Spanish media. NBC ran a story about the trip as well, and more network coverage is in the works.
Contributing to the developing narrative: a column by Andrea Tantaros in the Thursday New York Daily News
headlined, "Material girl Michelle Obama is a modern-day Marie Antoinette on a glitzy Spanish vacation."
"It is very difficult to lead a private life when you are a public figure," Anita McBride, the chief of staff for former first lady Laura Bush, told me. "No one would deny an official the need for a vacation. But the more expensive or lavish the trip, the greater the risk of criticism."
The first lady arrived in the Mediterranean coastal city of Marbella on Wednesday, checking in to the super-posh Villa Padierna, along with her daughter, friends, a small number of staffers -- the East Wing would not say how many -- and a security force. (The Obama's older daughter, Malia, 12, is at overnight camp.)
On Thursday, Mrs. Obama's entourage arrived in the historic city of Granada, also in southern Spain. According to a story in El Pais, before visiting the landmark cathedral in the city, Mrs. Obama's group stopped for ice cream, and didn't mind people snapping pictures on their cell phones. The day also included viewing a flamenco performance and in the evening a visit to the Alhambra palace.
When the trip was first announced, it was billed as "private mother-daughter trip with longtime family friends." On Wednesday in Politics Daily, I wrote that Mrs. Obama may well take some criticism
for the Spain vacation. While first ladies always stay at high-class hotels -- security is a big part of the reason -- a five-star resort on Spain's coast creates a potential perception problem. The U.S. jobless rate is still high -- 9.5 percent on Friday. And while Mrs. Obama and President Obama have tried to encourage tourism in Gulf Coast areas not impacted by the BP oil spill, she is highlighting the beauty of Spain's Mediterranean beaches before the first family travels to Florida's Gulf Coast on Aug. 14 for a weekend stay.
During the Wednesday afternoon briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the "appearance" of Mrs. Obama's trip. "The first lady is on a private trip," Gibbs said. "She is a private citizen and is the mother of a daughter on a private trip. And I think I'd leave it at that."
While the White House has emphasized that Mrs. Obama pays her personal costs, as do her friends who flew to Spain on their own, taxpayers pick up a big chunk of the tab.
According to CBS News, the tax dollar part of the vacation include an estimated $146,000 round-trip cost for the U.S. Air Force 757 aircraft, not counting ground time; about $95,000 in hotel costs for an estimated 70 security personnel -- Secret Service and military -- who get a $273-a-day government per diem, plus costs for the dozen or so cars in her motorcade. I'm told that three shifts of agents are needed for a trip of this magnitude.
While the trip may not be "politically smart," said Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus on CBS, "it was not a let them eat cake moment."
The East Wing argues that Mrs. Obama is a private citizen, not an elected official, and she wants to focus on her friends and family. While taking August off, she plans to ramp up her schedule after Labor Day. I'm also told the East Wing is not going to react to these stories about Mrs. Obama's travels.
From Spain, Mrs. Obama did keep tabs on the Senate's passage of child nutrition legislation. On Thursday night, the East Wing told me, she called four senators who played a role in passing a bill that is central to her signature issue of reducing child obesity: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).
I don't think anyone is begrudging Mrs. Obama vacations or sharing with her kids and pals some incredible opportunities she has from her unique perch to see the world. Some of this just has to do with the scale of a trip without some official substance.
While former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled with Chelsea and former first lady Laura Bush took Barbara and Jenna with her on trips, the overseas travel was in connection with "official" business that was more than lunch with royalty at their summer palace. And it's not like Mrs. Obama is lacking a diplomatic agenda. Her April visit to Mexico City was the kick off of her "international agenda" with a focus on developing youth leadership.
Mrs. Bush's true personal trips were hiking vacations in national parks with female pals.
Politics Daily readers who weighed in after my Wednesday piece summed up Mrs. Obama's situation.
"redrage727" wrote, "A little restraint would be appropriate in these tough economic times. It would mean a lot to the American people who pay for all these vacations and outings and would go a long way towards better relations with the people of the U.S. "
Replied "melonart," "I believe I detect a bit of envy and jealously in the comments I am reading. I am of the opinion that a public person can't win regardless of his or her choices in their private life..they are dammed if they do and dammed if they don't. Let a mother show her daughter a bit of the world."