WASHINGTON – It sounded simple enough: a mother-daughter getaway during the dogs days of August. But it's not so simple when Mom is the first lady of the United States. And the trip is to a luxury resort on Spain's Costa del Sol. During tough economic times at home.
Michelle Obama's five-day trip to the south of Spain with daughter Sasha touched off a mini-firestorm stoked by questions about the wisdom of such a glamorous trip and over-the-top speculation about who was footing the bill and how many friends were along for the ride.
Suddenly, the popular first lady was being compared to Marie Antoinette and labeled a "material girl" sponging off taxpayers.
A day after her Air Force plane returned home, the White House and its defenders still were trying to tamp down the flames Monday.
Obama aides scurried to fact-check over-the-top speculation about trip: The first lady traveled with a "minimal" number of friends, not 40, though no exact number was given. The friends got to Spain on their own, not flying on government aircraft. Mrs. Obama and her friends paid for their own meals and hotel rooms. She did not attend a fancy gala. And so on.
But the first lady does travel with Secret Service protection — at taxpayer expense, cost unannounced — and the expense of flying her military jet to Europe and back must have been considerable. Her entourage did book 60 rooms at one posh hotel, where the average room price is about $660, and claimed more rooms elsewhere. And police did shut down a 100-meter section of Mediterranean beach for the Obamas during a Friday visit to Estepona.
In a time of nearly double-digit unemployment and economic uncertainty, that sounded more than a little off-key to many in the U.S.
And although the White House seemed blindsided by the criticism, perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise.
"Obviously, this was a risk," said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush. "The more expensive a trip, the more criticism it invites. And yet that has to be balanced against the fact that the first lady, like anybody else, is in need of a vacation and a change of scenery."
Longtime presidential friend Marty Nesbitt said in an interview that the idea for the trip originated with his wife, Anita Blanchard. Blanchard, a doctor who delivered both of the Obamas' daughters, suggested that Mrs. Obama and Sasha accompany her and her daughters on a trip to Spain. Another Obama friend joined the two women, he said.
Noting that his wife's father had recently died, he said, "They're good friends and that's a tough time." He added, "When someone delivers your children, that's kind of an important bond, I think."
White House adviser David Axelrod said Monday on CNN, "Yes, she is the first lady of the United States. She's also a mom. She wanted to take her daughter on a trip. They went with some friends of the family to celebrate another little girl's birthday. There aren't all that many places to go where you get privacy. Wherever you go, security is going to come, not because she asked for it, but because that is a nature of her — of her position in life."
While in Spain, Mrs. Obama and her daughter also paid an official visit to King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia. And the first lady kept up on issues back home, issuing a statement praising congressional approval of child nutrition legislation.
Democrats said any criticism of her personal travels was out of bounds.
"It's wrong to talk about the first lady's family vacation as a politician," Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "She's a mom."
She's a mom who knows her every word, move, gesture and fashion choice can be subject to analysis.
For the most part, Mrs. Obama has managed to avoid controversy during her time as first lady, sticking to a handful of relatively safe issues such as fighting childhood obesity, helping military families and promoting national service and mentoring.
A Gallup poll released last month found the first lady's favorability ratings topped those for her husband, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and a host of other figures in the public eye.
But Mrs. Obama has not been immune to criticism.
Early in her husband's presidency, the first lady was skewered for wearing pricey sneakers by French design house Lanvin when she volunteered at a food bank. (The shoes can go for upwards of $500.)
And the first couple caught criticism when the president and Mrs. Obama flew Air Force One to New York last year for a date.
"If I weren't president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, " Barack Obama groused months later. "The notion that I just couldn't take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy about."
There also was a bit of grumbling last year when Obama ended a four-nation trip with some Paris sightseeing with his wife and their two daughters, including a stop at Notre-Dame Cathedral. The girls and the first lady lingered in the city after the president left for home, visiting the Eiffel Tower and other spots.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs last week tried to dismiss questions about the first lady's trip by saying, "She is a private citizen and is the mother of a daughter on a private trip."
But fair or not, any action by a modern president — or his wife — is sure to be viewed through a political prism, said McBride, who was Mrs. Bush's chief of staff.
"Everything you do when you're in a political environment has to be weighed," she said. "It's just the reality of being a public person."
Mrs. Obama isn't the first first lady to leave her husband home and go on vacation overseas.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea traveled by prop plane, land rover and rowboat to take a weekend break at a jungle lodge in Nepal during a mother-daughter tour of South Asia in 1995. And when the first lady and her daughter clambered atop a 10-foot-tall elephant to go on safari, the entourage include Secret Service agents packed onto another pachyderm.
The fact that the personal weekend retreat was sandwiched in the middle of a whirlwind 12-day official trip across South Asia may have helped avoid stirring criticism.
When Jacqueline Kennedy and her daughter Caroline spent three weeks at a seaside villa in Italy in 1962, the biggest controversy seemed to be over the first lady's decision to take Caroline water skiing. A London tabloid, which displayed a photo of Kennedy holding her crying daughter's head above water after a spill, proclaimed the outing "madness." A Colorado minister criticized her for appearing in public in a bathing suit and staying out until the early morning hours "while away from the U.S. and her husband."
Associated Press writer Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.