On Friday, in yet another report tagged with the word “unexpected,” economic growth in the United States slowed to a 2.2 percent annual rate, well below economists’ predictions of 2.5 percent. This anemic trend represents part of the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression. Most Americans understand that such a reality requires a certain amount of belt-tightening on their part. President Obama and the First Family? Not so much. A series of upscale vacations, substantial portions of which are underwritten by taxpayers, continue to be an integral part of the Obamas’ lifestyle.
Few reasonable Americans begrudge “down time” for the president or his family. Yet at a time when the word “staycation” has become an increasingly familiar part of the American lexicon, one might think a president who both vilifies the rich and reminds Americans that he wasn’t born ”with a silver spoon in my mouth” might be a bit more sensitive to the kind of vacations taken by the president and his family.
In a rather odd way, he is. When the president’s 13-year-old daughter, Malia, took a Spring Break trip to Mexico with 12 of her friends and 25 Secret Service agents–one that reportedly cost taxpayers $2.5 million–it was covered by the mainstream media. AFP filed the initial report, and the story was subsequently picked up by Yahoo, the Huffington Post, and theInternational Business Times, as well as foreign publications, such as Daily Mail, the Telegraphand The Australian.
Yet by the same evening, all of the stories had been removed from each of those sites. The updated links either directed one to a site’s home page or 404 error pages, reading “page not found.” What happened? The White House got a compliant media to scrub the story. Kristina Schake, Communications Director to the First Lady, confirmed this to Politico: “From the beginning of the administration, the White House has asked news outlets not to report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest. We have reminded outlets of this request in order to protect the privacy and security of these girls.”
Again, such concerns for the safety of First Family members are entirely legitimate. Yet some questions remain unanswered. Why would the president allow his daughter to travel to Mexico despite a Texas Department of Public Safety warning not to go there because “cartel violence and other criminal activity represent a significant safety threat, even in some resort areas”? Why was it necessary to include a dozen friends, making the trip more expensive and security far more complicated? Why are members of the mainstream media taking marching orders from the White House? Why did the trip cost taxpayers $2.5 million?
Perhaps, as the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Last week, Judicial Watch released a report revealing that First Lady Michelle Obama’s trip to Costa Del Sol, Spain in 2010 cost taxpayers $467,585. Again, no reasonable person begrudges a woman in the public spotlight some rest and relaxation. But as the New York Times reports, part of that R&R included a stay at the “five-star Hotel Villa Padierna near Marbella, where at least 30 rooms were reserved for the entourage, including those for security. The hotel is one of Spain’s more luxurious establishments, with rooms ranging from $500-a-night to a $6,600 suite with 24-hour butler service.”
Furthermore, Mrs. Obama is hardly reticent when it comes to taking vacations. Her February 2012 trip to upscale Aspen, Colorado, for a President’s Day ski weekend with daughters Sasha and Malia, marked the 16th vacation (the updated number is now 17) taken by Obama family members in just over three years, not including visits to the Camp David compound, or short trips like a New York City “date night” taken in May 2009. Nor is the First Lady or the president seemingly concerned saddling taxpayers with the cost of flying separately to the same vacation sites. It cost taxpayers $100,000 when the First Lady jetted to a 2010 Hawaii vacation ahead of her husband, and several thousands more when the First Lady traveled to a Martha’s Vineyard vacation on a separate government jet only four hours prior to the president’s trip there. While at Martha’s Vineyard, the First Family stayed at Blue Heron Farm, a property that reportedly rents for approximately $50,000 per week. And on a trip to Maine in July of 2010, the President’s dog, Bo, and his handler traveled on a separate plane to that destination.
Such a penchant for extravagance has added up to some pretty daunting numbers. The UK’s Daily Mail, citing White House sources who referred to the First Lady as “a vacation junkie,” claimed Michelle Obama had “has spent $10 million of U.S. taxpayers’ money on vacations alone in the past year”–as of August 2011. The unnamed source further notes that Mrs. Obama also enjoys “drinking expensive booze during her trips. She favors martinis with top-shelf vodka and has a taste for rich sparking wines.”
Unsurprisingly, a member of the mainstream media defended the Obamas. Mark Knoller of CBS News contended that former president George W. Bush’s vacation “day count” was more than double the Obama totals during the same period of time. Yet Bush went to his own ranch in Crawford, Texas, and the costs associated with such trips hardly compare with, for example, the Obama’s 2011 Christmas vacation in Hawaii, exceeding $1.5 million, according to the Hawaii Reporter. And the same media that ridiculed George Bush for his golfing is remarkably silent regarding president Obama’s numerous golf outings, despite the fact that the current president has played more times in his first term than Bush did in two. One of those rounds was played in lieu of attending the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.
The First Family’s extravagance is starting to wear thin, including on Democrats. Pollster John McLaughlin and other Republican pollsters traveled to 11 battleground states to talk to swing voters, “mostly Democrats” who voted for Obama in 2008, but are currently undecided. While there was overall depression among those they spoke with regarding the economy, as well as resentment directed at both the rich and government workers “sucking up” their tax dollars, many of the respondents “volunteered criticism of the presidential vacations as something that should be cut.” McLaughlin illuminated their reasoning. “They view everything through their own personal situation and if they can’t afford to do it, they can’t enjoy it, they don’t like Obama using their tax dollars to benefit himself,” he said. “In this case, they see him as out of touch. While they are struggling, he’s not sharing in that struggle, and he’s basically doing what they can’t do on their tax dollars.”
Rightly or wrongly, what determines the outcome of an election is as much about perception as it is about facts. There is no question the president is seeking to paint wealth in general, and Mitt Romney’s success in particular, as something to be vilified and/or envied. Such a message undoubtedly resonates with a substantial number of Americans. Yet some Americans are beginning to notice that one wealthy individual (the president’s current net worth is approximately $5 million) vilifying another wealthier individual, demonstrates a certain level of disingenuousness at best, and outright hypocrisy at worst. That unseemliness is exacerbated by a publicly lavish lifestyle at least partially underwritten by taxpayers, even as the president has called for “shared sacrifice” among his fellow Americans.
Mr. Obama has a potential tiger by the tail. It would be more than a little ironic if the man committed to stoking class resentment was undone next November by that resentment being turned towards himself and his family. Yet when measured against running on his record, it would seem that the president and his campaign handlers consider it the more viable of the two options. Whether is it or not will be revealed in the coming months.
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