Maureen Dowd in NYT:
Her critics used to paint her as a scary Marxist. Now they cast her as a spoiled princess.
During the campaign, she was caricatured on the cover of The New Yorker as a fist-bumping, gun-toting Black Panther. Now she’s mocked by a New York Daily News blogger as a jet-setting, free-spending Marie Antoinette. (On Spain’s Costa del Sol with Sasha on her husband’s 49th birthday, she did, in effect, say let him eat cake — alone.)
Michelle Obama is the most popular figure in the administration, but last week she had her first brush with getting brushed back in the press.
Some of the women anchoring news shows on MSNBC debated whether the first lady was being “mean” to her husband by deserting him on his birthday for a girls’ getaway to Spain, and whether it was sort of sad, as one put it, that the president, drowning in troubles, had to go to Chicago to find friends (including Oprah) to celebrate with.
Andrea Tantaros, a Fox contributor and former Republican operative, wrote a harsh Daily News blog post calling the first lady a “material girl” for going on a glitzy vacation at a luxury resort in Marbella with a cavalcade of Secret Service agents, friends, children and staff, even as “most of the country is pinching pennies and downsizing summer sojourns — or forgoing them altogether.”
In politics and pop culture, optics are all. And Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some in the White House and the Democratic Party wince.
So Michelle Obama vacations in Spain with her daughter and an expensive posse, leaving her husband alone on his birthday and undermining his party’s political chances (bad recession ‘optics’). This is the sort of story on which I suspect there are three levels of perception:
1. Unsophisticated: Jeez, they must have had some kind of fight. She’s pissed! This is a big ‘screw you.’
2. Sophisticated and well informed: At their level everyone is too smart and experienced to let any kind of spat affect state affairs. These things get planned out well ahead of time by staff. Only the unsophisticated jump to conclusions on the basis of crude external appearances.
3. Real Insider: Jeez, they must have had some kind of fight. She’s pissed! This is a big ‘screw you.’
Hey, who wouldn’t want a quarter-million-dollar, taxpayer-paid Spanish vacation? Some people just feel compelled to rain on parades, however, and the First Lady’s extravagant Spanish holiday provides a pretty big target. It’s no surprise to see a Republican strategist blast the Obamas for playing Marie Antoinette by spending almost $250,000 on a vacation outside of the US, but it’s not just Republicans scratching their heads at the “tone deaf” nature of such a high-profile outing during economic stagnation.
Michael Barone at The Examiner:
I must admit I was puzzled to learn that the First Lady was headed to Marbella this time of year. Isn’t it awfully hot on the Mediterranean in August? I gather that the hotel she and friends are staying at is isolated and luxurious, but Marbella itself — at least when I drove quickly through it in the summer of 1997 — is pretty tacky, with signs (“BANGERS AND MASH” “MAN U ON CABLE”) suggesting it’s full of downscale British tourists.
Michelle having made what most would agree to be the wrong choice about where to be on her husband’s 49th birthday seems to be a family trait. Maybe the First Lady was merely emulating a pattern Barack has repeatedly set forth as precedent: Never be where you should be. Exercise iconoclast attitudes and stun the world by doing the inappropriate
Take for instance the Spain-over-birthday attitude the President exhibited by observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House in lieu of attending Ground Zero ceremonies in New York City on September 11, 2009, choosing to send Joe Biden in his stead.
Didn’t Barack Obama also spend free time vacationing, golfing, going to baseball games and entertaining a Beatle instead of addressing the crisis of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico? A few days after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion, instead of meeting with BP executives, Obama chose to eat barbeque with Michelle in Ashville, NC
Obama campaigned for Senate Majority leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas, not far from a southern border state under siege. The President, who flew to Copenhagen to pick up an unearned Nobel Peace Prize, chose to prosecute Arizona even before personally assessing the illegal war on the border Arizonans struggle against daily.
Suddenly Michelle’s ill-timed trip to Marbella pales in comparison.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Michelle Obama vacationing in Spain; they have the money, so why not? But I agree with Doug Mataconis that, while there’s nothing actually wrong with it, it’s really quite unbelievably politically stupid. When we’re in the middle of the worst recession in living memory, it’s not a good idea to take a luxury vacation that most of your countrymen could never possibly afford in the best of times, at considerable taxpayer expense for the security, in a foreign country. Whether or not people should resent it, they will, and his party’s already in big enough trouble without reinforcing the Red State sense that this administration is full of out-of-touch elites. I’m astonished that Obama’s advisors gave this trip the green light.
Nick Gillespie at Reason:
Sure, the First Lady’s vacation is at most a symbolic activity (symbolic of what, exactly, is unclear, especially because the State Department had to hustle to remove warnings from its website that “racist prejudices could lead to the arrest of Afro-Americans who travel to Spain” before Mrs. Obama touched down). But the fact is that all politics is symbolic and pretty much any way you cut it, this trip is a symbol that something is rotten in DC and especially among the political class.
Way, way back in 2004, when the future was brighter than a brand-spanking new tube of Gleem toothpaste, the accomplished doctor-wife of insurgent candidate Howard Dean got it right when she pulled a Dennis Thatcher and refused to be a public player in her spouse’s campaign. That gesture of refusal took us back to the thrilling days of yore, when monarchs were deposed and limited-government, small-R republicanism was first created, a moment when originally stingy-with-the-public-purse-strings folks like Oliver Cromwell pledged not to live like kings on the public teat (boy, did that ever go wrong). Cromwell and his New Model Army, after all, had taken down a ruler who flaunted his tax-enabled excess via a court that was truly out of control (sadly, it took but a few years for Cromwell to get on that bandwagon himself). But there, for a brief, shining moment, was an idea that rulers should live like the people they govern because, after all, they weren’t any different. And the last thing you wanted was a partner who ran up the credit cards like Mary Todd Lincoln or sniffed about letting the little people eat cake.
Lynn Sweet at Politics Daily:
Michelle Obama returned to Washington on Sunday from five days on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, taking a mother-daughter trip with Sasha, 9, that stirred controversy. A White House source told me, however, that Mrs. Obama traveled to Spain to help a grieving friend deal with the death of her father.
[…]One of the women is a longtime Obama friend, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician who delivered Sasha and big sister Malia, 12. Her husband is Marty Nesbitt, a close Obama friend and treasurer of Obama’s presidential campaign fund.A White House source told me the Mrs. Obama was not able to attend the funeral for Blanchard’s father at the beginning of July. Blanchard, who was taking her daughter on a promised trip to Spain, asked the first lady and Sasha to come to Spain with her. (Malia is at overnight camp.) “She felt it was important as a dear friend to do this,” I was told.Mrs. Obama and her friends paid for their hotel rooms and other personal expenses. All first ladies, however, get 24-hour security and transportation on military aircraft. When Mrs. Obama flies on personal business, she pays what amounts to a first-class fare, but taxpayers pick up most of the overhead costs for the plane and security.A reason Mrs. Obama stayed at the ritzy Villa Padierna in Marbella was security, I was told. Agents were able to secure the lush resort and a nearby beach.
UPDATE #2: Byron York at The Washington Examiner