By Ruth Marcus
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.”
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.”
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Samantha Appleton
Some would prefer that the first lady vacation in Panama City, above, rather than on the beaches of Spain.