The Faux Scandal of Michelle Obama's Spain Trip

Sergio Torres / AP

You've probably heard by now that Michelle Obama is out of touch, apathetic, or simply selfish for taking a four-day jaunt to Spain to show her daughter some culture. Andrea Tantaros over at the New York Daily News spent a lot of time on Thursday penning an editorial accusing Obama of being a "modern-day Marie Antoinette"—tone-deaf to the economic suffering on the home front by taking a lavish foreign vacation. The most scandalous part, apparently, is the cost. The Obamas booked a rumored block of 60 rooms at a fancy Spanish hotel apparently akin to the Four Seasons.

We checked with the White House for a price breakdown of the trip, looking for a smoking gun. And honestly, there isn't one. The bulk of the trip—the hotel stay and all meals—were paid for by the Obamas and their close friends who joined them. "Any additional footprint," says a White House aide, "including additional rooms needed for security support, falls 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."

The unmentioned point here is that the first lady doesn't travel with that big a security detail. The Secret Service obviously won't discuss the extent of her protective covering. But she's nothing like her husband, or any recent past president, who has been known to have a 20-car (or more) motorcade, as well as two planes, up to three helicopters, and more than 100 staffers for even ordinary puddle-jumping trips for a speech about the economy. Overkill? Maybe. But the Secret Service would say that it's just part of the cost of having an executive and keeping him safe. Perhaps it could be done for cheaper, the way British Prime Minister David Cameron crossed the pond last month on a commercial airliner. By that logic, maybe it's time for an honest accounting of exactly what kind of image the first family needs to represent America, or how big a security detail is actually needed to protect them. But a four-day trip overseas hardly seems like the best example of a system out of control.

In the meantime, it's hard to think of Michelle Obama's trip with her daughter as terribly blasphemous. Being first lady is a little like being vice president—a respectable title with no actual duties. So it seems unreasonable to ask the first lady to refrain from taking a short trip during August, the slowest month of the year, one that also coincides with her kids' summer vacation. Or to ask that as long as she's living in the White House, she only take vacations that "look" appropriate. The only really upsetting part is that, well, the rest of us are still sitting at our desks.