Michelle Obama's Spain vacation gives heartburn to critics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama caused a stir among the chattering class for a trip to Spain, but some Washington analysts called it a tempest in an August teapot, with no impact on her popularity or her husband’s political standing.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama is greeted by Spain's King Juan Carlos as her daughter Sasha looks on before their lunch at Marivent Palace in Palma de Mallorca August 8, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo

Critics portrayed her trip last week with daughter Sasha to the Costa del Sol as a case study in being politically tone-deaf when Americans are struggling with a 9.5 percent unemployment rate and even her husband is encouraging sacrifice.

“Material girl Michelle Obama is a modern-day Marie Antoinette on a glitzy Spanish vacation,” was the headline last week of an opinion column by Andrea Tantaros, a former Republican campaign strategist, for the New York Daily News.

From the more liberal side, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote over the weekend: “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.”

But Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, showed no public wincing when he was asked to comment as a “political travel agent” on the first lady’s trip.

“I think it’s wrong to talk about the first lady’s family vacation as a politician, she’s a mom,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. It was an opportunity to give her daughter “some exposure to a part of the world that they hadn’t been before.”

Mrs. Obama met with Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia on Sunday before returning to Washington to belatedly celebrate her husband’s 49th birthday at a White House barbecue.

President Barack Obama spent much of his birthday week talking about the U.S. economy and visiting automobile plants hard-hit by the recession.

First families, especially with young children, “are given wide latitude to have a life outside of the confines of the office of the presidency,” said Nicolle Wallace, a former top aide to Republican President George W. Bush and campaign adviser to John McCain in his 2008 presidential bid.

“But I think that there is a responsibility that lies kind of somewhere between the East and West Wing to guard against the optics of opulence at a time of pretty grave economic distress for a lot of Americans,” she said.

“It just looked too opulent for the times.”

Political analysts saw criticism of the vacation having little impact.

“She is the most popular figure in the administration,” Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said. “I just don’t think Americans are going to begrudge her a vacation.”

A Gallup poll in July showed Michelle Obama’s favorability rating at 66 percent topped former President Bill Clinton’s 61 percent, and her husband’s 52 percent.

“I doubt very much it will have much impact on her standing,” Bowman said.

Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, also said he did not see the Spain vacation turning into an issue with real impact.

“The first lady is very popular and I don’t think this issue has legs,” he said, calling it a “tempest in a teapot.”

A White House official said the first family paid for their personal expenses on the trip, while security and transportation costs fell “under the same rules as have applied to any previous first family travel -- the costs are split appropriately with private expenses paid for privately; government expenses are paid for by the government.”

Mrs. Obama’s friends went to Spain on their own, not on government aircraft, the official said.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Jerry Norton