As the U.S. economy endures high unemployment and a jittery stock market, President Obama has preached sacrifice and fiscal discipline. But the pictures coming out of a sunsplashed Spanish resort this week may be sending a different message.
First lady Michelle Obama is on a five-day trip to a luxury resort along with a handful of friends, her younger daughter, Sasha, aides and Secret Service personnel. Her office said the first family will pay for personal expenses, but declined to reveal the taxpayer cost for the government employees. The president stayed home in the United States, as did daughter Malia, 12, who is at camp.
The trip provided plenty of fodder for news shows, talk-show hosts and bloggers.
Critics portrayed the foreign getaway as tone deaf to the economic anxiety back home. Earlier in the week, the first lady was photographed walking through the streets of the Costa del Sol region.
Every first family takes vacations. The criticism aimed at Michelle Obama is that she chose to visit a foreign country rather than remain in the United States and support its fragile economy.
In July, the first lady flew to the Florida Panhandle, a tourist spot hit hard by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and delivered the message that for parents “looking for things to do with their kids this summer … this is a wonderful place to visit.”
The opulence of the European trip also has drawn scrutiny. Michelle Obama is staying at the Hotel Villa Padierna, a Ritz-Carlton resort in the mountains outside Marbella. The resort has two golf courses, a posh spa with Turkish baths, views of the Mediterranean Sea and a high-end restaurant specializing in avant-garde fare. Room rates start at $400 and rise to $6,500 for a two-bedroom villa with a private pool and 24-hour butler service.
The danger for the Obamas is that the trip may feed perceptions they are out of touch with struggling American families, said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster.
“This in and of itself doesn’t hurt President Obama, but it plants a seed in voters’ minds … that ‘they’re not like me,’ ” he said.
While her friends arrived in Spain on their own, Michelle Obama flew in on a type of aircraft also used by Vice President Joseph Biden. It costs the government $11,555 an hour to operate the plane, according to the Air Force. Assuming a nearly eight-hour flight to nearby Málaga, the total round-trip cost of the flight is about $178,000.
The Obama family will reimburse the government an amount equal to two first-class tickets – for mother and daughter Sasha, Air Force officials said. A round-trip first-class flight to Málaga costs about $7,400 apiece, without discounts or restrictions.
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, was not surprised the trip has its critics.
“When you are a public figure, it can be difficult to lead a private life. Despite the fact that much of this trip is paid for personally, the American people know that there are costs borne by the taxpayers and it’s to be expected that the more expensive the trip, the greater the risk of criticism,” McBride said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to answer questions about the vacation, saying it is a “private trip.”
An unspecified number of Secret Service agents and aides are staying at government expense. Edwin Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, declined to say how many agents are with the first lady in Spain.
An Obama administration official said the first lady is accompanied by “a handful of longtime family friends – it’s moms and daughters – and it’s minimal staff.” One aide on the trip is the first lady’s deputy chief of staff, Melissa Winter.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the destination was chosen by Michelle Obama and her friends.
On Friday, Spanish police cleared off a 100-yard stretch of beach in Marbella for Michelle Obama and Sasha, 9. As the first lady rested inside a canvas hut by the shore, Sasha splashed around in the sea and a security guard swam with her.
The first lady is to meet with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia today at their summer residence on the island of Mallorca.
After the first lady returns home, she and her family will travel to the Gulf Coast for the weekend of Aug. 14, followed by a 10-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.