First lady Michelle Obama visited Marbella, a city in southern Spain, while vacationing last week.
First lady Michelle Obama visited Marbella, a city in southern Spain, while vacationing last week. Sergio Torres/AP
I need to start by disclosing that I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I drive a nice car, which is almost paid for. And I have some nice clothes, which, while mostly leftovers from my days as a television correspondent, are nevertheless mine and I do wear them. Our kids all have passports and we do enjoy using them from time to time. And with any luck we will get to go to the beach sometime this summer. I say all this just to establish that I am not a hater, especially not of the first lady with whom I share a name — the elegant, intelligent, Michelle Obama.
But having said all that, even I have to agree that the first lady's vacation trip to a pricey resort in Spain in a week when we are reminded that nearly 1 out of 10 Americans is still unemployed — well, that is not a good look.
Is that unfair? Sure it is.
Are the comparisons to Marie Antoinette way over the top? Of course.
Is at least some of the grousing directed at the family motivated by partisanship at best and racism at worst? I bet it is.
I bet many of the people harrumphing about Michelle Obama's vacation trip now had no problems with what CBS News' Mark Knoller tells us were President George W. Bush's 77 visits to his ranch in Crawford and the 490 days he spent vacationing during his eight-year presidency. They had no problem with it because they liked him and they wanted him to be happy doing what I think we all agree is a very difficult job.
I will further argue that there are people in this country who will not accept that the Obamas should ever have a day off in the White House because they cannot accept that they belong there to begin with. Because they cannot accept that any black people can have something they cannot have or can do something they cannot do.
Some of these people will not be happy until Mr. Obama cuts the White House lawn himself and Mrs. Obama cooks and serves the food at the state dinners.
But having said all that, can I just tell you? This trip was a bad idea, and it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of any number of people who wish the Obamas nothing but the best.
It was a bad idea because Mrs. Obama is the "Mom-in Chief," as she so named herself. And while she meant that term to describe her duties to her family, she also has, and usually seems to understand, that she has a duty to her husband's constituents as well. And part of that duty is, like the mom she is, to understand what hurts even when she can't fix it.
What hurts right now is that there are millions of people who cannot put new clothes on their kids' backs, let alone designer duds. Or keep a roof over their heads no matter how hard they try, let alone jet off to pricey vacation spots.
What hurts right now is that too many people are getting deeper and deeper into a financial hole that they did not create and cannot get out of on their own.
Sure, some people helped their own slide by buying houses they couldn't afford or even, you could argue, failing to complete their educations when they had the chance. But it makes it no less traumatic right now.
And you can agree that this administration is doing all it can within the political constraints it faces to help people cope and if it had not acted, things would be worse, and still grasp that the circumstances many people face are truly dire and it is not over yet and may not be for some time. Even if hiring picks up, it will take years to regain all the 8.4 million jobs lost during the recession. More than a million homes went into foreclosure last year alone, and some of these people will never regain the financial stability or the emotional stability that they have lost.
What does all that have to do with where the Obamas' vacation?
Except that it is another way for them to show that they grasp what others are going through and are willing to share our pain.
By any measure the Obamas are wealthy now. But that is a very recent phenomenon in their lives. Neither of them benefited from the kinds of intergenerational wealth that results in beautifully appointed second homes hidden behind high hedges, such as several of our recent presidents enjoyed. But that is exactly why many people voted for President Obama.
If the voters wanted somebody with seven houses to chill in, they could have voted for John McCain.
And while I don't think anybody expects the Obamas to sleep on the floor at Grandma's for their August break, it wouldn't kill them to show a little more sensitivity to the people who so much want them to succeed and at the moment have very little to show for it but hope.