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Michelle Obama's Lavish Spain Vacation Sparking Criticism

4 years ago
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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 stories -- 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."
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Michael...the problem with her visiting the national parks in America, is China now owns them thanks to her husband that put them up for collateral for the stimulus loan, that takes half the nations gross national product, to just pay the interests..

August 07 2010 at 9:50 PM +3

'kavieng6:36 PM Aug 7, 2010
This is a perk of the highest office in the land. People will always ask those questions. There has always been a hidden sector and a large one at that in our midst that has questioned the wisdom of many of our tax funded programmes like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we need to question is why Dick Cheney is not on trial for his indicretions (for want of a better word) with the Katrina money, that went to his companies, without a proper public tendering process. Or why Henry Kissinger is not on trial for war crimes. many Americans returing from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer irrerpairable damage and need liffe long care...
Michelle Obama is the most intelligent and educated first lady ... to have entered the white House...She is a great ambassador to the world, to repair our dirtied image...'
Very well put.
Your logic is brilliant!

August 07 2010 at 9:32 PM -6

I'd take a vacation, or two, or three..okay I've lost count...also if I knew my husband was destroying the greatest Nation in the history of the world. I'm sure she's stressed.

August 07 2010 at 9:20 PM +10

Sorry...she's not a public servant as stated in my comment, but her husband is. She has no right to take these vacations on taxpayer dime.

August 07 2010 at 9:16 PM +8

She is a millionaire, I think she can afford a vacation or two.

August 07 2010 at 8:56 PM -9
2 replies to snessee's comment

Sure she can afford her portion, it's the excess that WE the taxpayers are footing the bill for. Read the article. WE have to cover the $146,000 round trip for the US Air Force 757 plus $$$ for ground time. WE have to cover the $95,000 in hotel hotel expenses for 70 security personnel-Secret Service and Military to guard Michelle and Sasha. WE have to cover the 70 security personnel who earn a per diem (per day) of $273 plus costs. WE have to cover the costs of a dozen or so cars in her motorcade. Add it up...It's ridiculous.
How many trips do they take?

August 07 2010 at 9:37 PM +8

Then why is she using tax payers money, for friends and her security. Most celbs pay for their own body guards. Her husband is president not her.

August 07 2010 at 9:49 PM +4

sure she has a right to show her daughter the world but how many parents would indulge at taxpayers expense.ours is a republic not a many people can go on vacation with so many sec guards and a dozen cars.thought obamas more like common folks not royalty.things change on opm

August 07 2010 at 8:51 PM +4

It's unfortunate that our country is in such dire straits. I worry for these poor people without jobs and it must be hard to watch the chosen few be able to take any kind of vacation without one at a five-star resort.

The rich seem to get richer and the poor, poorer. Very sad and it says very little for the compassion of the elite that they do this sort of thing. When you are in the public eye, it is not wise to flaunt your position, your money or your power.

The Clintons are fabulously wealthy and have one child to look after. I was a little sad that they were so over the top with Chelsea's wedding, too. It is totally their money, but you like to think they would be more considerate of the American citizens.

I have been around a long, long time and I just don't see people getting any smarter in the ways of the world. The division between the haves and the have nots is widening by the minute.

Somehow it reminds me of the Russian and French revolutions...the excesses of the wealthy ruling class became intolerable for the proleteriat.

August 07 2010 at 8:41 PM +3

Here's an idea to stimulate our economy . Give a stimulus of $10,000 per family , but tell them to only spend it here in our homeland so that the small towns and rural America gets some much needed help. Wow I think someone has lost touch with the American people . This isn't about Michelle being a private citizen . My point is in her role you have to show compassion and use good common sense. She isn't in touch with the reality that most families in the USA is one paycheck away from financial trouble . The money spent to fly her round trip is about $178,000 . It upsets me to think how many people I could help with that . Our own country would have been just fine to visit and support. She could have visited our National parks for starters.

August 07 2010 at 8:19 PM +9

if only we had a crystal ball at election time, they are doing exactly what i feared they are not strong enough people to resist the fame celeb riches now accessable to them, its sickening

August 07 2010 at 8:01 PM +11

Forget about left or right. For every 80 tourist to the Gulf Coast, another job is created. Mrs. Obama's trip alone would have created at least one more needed job, and her "personal expenses" would have helped the economy right here, in America, where her husband gets paid.

August 07 2010 at 7:34 PM +5

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