Let them eat tapas? Mrs Obama faces holiday fury

First lady returns from trip to Spain in midst of economic strife to find Republicans painting her as a modern Marie Antoinette

If an ordinary mother took her daughter on a sightseeing trip to Spain, the most contentious issue might be how much they spent in Zara. Not so for Michelle Obama. Unpacking back home in Washington yesterday after a holiday with her daughter Sasha, the first lady found herself in the middle of a political tempest – accused of taking a page out of Marie Antoinette's book and living it up while the country limps through an economic crisis.

Conservative critics seized on details of her itinerary to paint her – and by extension her husband the President – as at best tone-deaf and at worst feckless. There was the choice of the five-star Hotel Villa Padierna in Marbella where rooms go for as much as $7,000 (£4,400) per night, for instance, and the commotion caused when a beach was briefly roped off to allow her to swim.

Even a lunch with the Spanish King and Queen – a diplomatic gesture – at the Marivent Palace in Palma de Mallorca on Sunday was cast by parts of the American media as being overly luxurious, featuring, we were breathlessly informed: "Andalusian-style chilled gazpacho soup, chargrilled turbot, veal escalopes with mustard, Oriental rice with sautéed mushrooms."

It was New York Daily News columnist Andrea Tantaros who said the trip made her look like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. Barack and Michelle Obama have asked the country to make sacrifices in hard times, Tantaros noted, yet "while most of the country is pinching pennies and downsizing summer sojourns... the Obamas don't seem to be heeding their own advice."

And while Mrs Obama will probably judge that the storm resides in a teacup (presumably served with cake), her political opponents will be hoping that the row will hurt the Democrats' plan to make use of her star power in the coming midterm elections.

Whatever the eventual impact, the Marie Antoinette smear is not new. Fellow Obama-basher Glenn Beck of Fox News was one of the first to use it in May when the first couple hosted a state dinner for the President of Mexico. But in this case, it appears that a lot of what Americans learned about the trip on the networks and cable news shows was not altogether true.

Admittedly, Mrs Obama did take off for Spain aboard a presidential Boeing 757 and she can't go anywhere without a substantial, and expensive, Secret Service contingent. But rather than 40 companions along for the ride, it now appears she took two women friends from Chicago. They paid at least some money towards it.

The three women took four daughters; Sasha was among them, but Malia stayed in the US to attend summer camp. As for choosing the Villa Padierna, part of the Ritz group, as her base, even that apparently wasn't Michelle's doing. Rather it was selected by the Secret Service for its ease of protection.

David Axelrod, political adviser to the President, offered this defence to Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times. "Folks in the public eye are also human beings," he said. "If you have the ability to show your kid a part of the world and you can do that together before they get to the age where they don't want to do anything with you, I don't think it's right that you have to defer it because of the politics."

Dowd – normally an Obama supporter who shares few other views with the likes of Beck and Tantaros – went on to ask why the first lady was in Spain and not somewhere near the BP spill. "If Michelle had wanted a closed beach, she could have headed to our gulf, " she wrote at the weekend. "There are plenty of multi-star hotels there, and she and the girls could have cleaned a few pelicans."

Mrs Obama has survived worse, most notably in the 2008 campaign when she made that remark about being proud of her country for the first time when voters began flocking to her husband. A July Gallup poll gave her an approval rating of 66 per cent compared with 52 per cent for the President.

Democratic strategists want to deploy Michelle to pump up the vote ahead of congressional midterm elections. They see her as a Laura Bush, a first lady more popular than the president. But the reverse can happen. First ladies who at times threatened to damage their husbands have included Nancy Reagan, who consulted an astrologer, and Betty Ford, an alcoholic.

It's unlikely that the Spanish tragicomedy has put Michelle in the second camp. But the criticism has yet to subside. "It's out of balance, it's not a smart move," Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist, said yesterday. Bradley Blakeman, also a Republican strategist, was more harsh. "I believe Michelle Obama is not the asset she could have been on the campaign trail," he said on Politico.com yesterday. "Her 'let them eat cake' attitude will come back to haunt her and as a result, 'heads will roll' this November at the ballot box."

The facts and the fiction

* It's true the Obamas and their guests stayed at the five-star Villa Padierna hotel. But the choice was not theirs: their security attachment picked the location on protection grounds.

* Mrs Obama was reported to have attended a ball hosted by Antonio Banderas and Eva Longoria at the hotel; in fact, she went to dinner with friends.

* Some 40 friends were reported to have joined the Obamas. But in reality only two friends and their children came, paying some of their own costs. The father of one of the two recently died; Mrs Obama was unable to attend the funeral, and invited her on holiday as a gesture.

* The first lady did, indeed, eat gazpacho soup, turbot, and veal escalopes at lunch with the Spanish King and Queen. The group also had ice cream for dessert.

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