Saturday, August 7, 2010

More Lightness

Pro, sort of:

Give the First Lady a Break
By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Let's stipulate: A five-star resort on the Spanish Costa del Sol was probably not the first choice of White House spin-meisters for a mother-daughter getaway. Especially when the getaway included a posse of 40 friends of the first lady staying at the Hotel Villa Padierna, where rooms start at $330 a night, and photos of Michelle Obama strolling in Marbella wearing an off-the-shoulder number by Jean Paul Gaultier.

"The first lady is on a private trip," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "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."

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Ruth Marcus RealClearPolitics
Michelle Obama

He wishes.

Technically, the first lady may be a private citizen. In actuality, she isn't. She can't be; see, for example, the Secret Service contingent that accompanies her, private trip or not private trip. This is a simple fact of modern presidential family life.

So as a political matter, the trip to Spain was not a good idea. You don't need Dick Morris -- who famously polled the Clintons' vacation plans and pushed Jackson Hole over Martha's Vineyard -- to tell you it's not going to play well at a time of 9.5 percent unemployment.

But I also don't begrudge Michelle Obama the trip, and I'd just as soon not have my First Family vacations determined by focus groups. I'm a big fan of mother-daughter -- or father-daughter, for that matter -- trips. I'm a big fan of foreign travel. School's out. It can't be that the only acceptable activity in stressful economic times is a First Family stay-cation. Stick around the White House and straighten the closets, maybe repaint a bedroom?

If Michelle and Sasha had hung out at home, not one more American would have a job, not one-hundredth of a decimal point would be added to the gross domestic product. Yes, her travel required a government plane and Secret Service resources, but that would be true wherever she went. It was true when George W. Bush made 77 visits to his ranch in Crawford and spent all or part of 490 days there during his presidency, according to CBS News' Mark Knoller, official tallier of presidential downtime.

Writing in The New York Daily News, Andrea Tantaros said "Michelle Obama seems more like a modern-day Marie Antoinette ... than an average mother of two." Tantaros acknowledged that "we all need downtime -- the First Family included," but added, "it's the extravagance of Michelle Obama's trip and glitzy destination contrasted with President Obama's demonization of the rich that smacks of hypocrisy and perpetuates a disconnect between the country and its leaders."

But the president's alleged "demonization" involves bashing Wall Street titans for simultaneously crashing the economy and drawing huge bonuses; it's not their wealth per se that he sees as a problem. And, let's be serious, Michelle Obama is not going to be staying in a Motel Six anytime soon.

The Marie Antoinette reference was a nice line, but unfair. Michelle was taking her daughter on a trip, not pronouncing, "Let them eat tapas."


Michelle Obama's Lavish Spain Vacation Sparking Criticism

Lynn Sweet

While First Lady Michelle Obama continues sightseeing and shopping in southern Spain with 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 U.S.

Mrs. Obama also has a "public" part of the vacation, but its 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. 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," Anita McBride, the chief of staff for former First Lady Laura Bush, told me.

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. (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. 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," Gibbs said.

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 -- Secret Service and military -- who get a $273 per 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 child anti-obesity issue, 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 leadershipMrs. 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."


Politically, it's dumb, dumb, dumb!

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