Reporting from Washington — As the economy endures high unemployment and a jittery stock market, President Obama has preached sacrifice and fiscal discipline. But the pictures coming out of a sun-splashed Spanish resort this week may be sending a different message.
First Lady Michelle Obama is in the midst of a five-day trip to a luxury resort along with a few friends, her youngest daughter, aides and Secret Service personnel. Her office said the family will pay for personal expenses, but won't reveal the taxpayer cost for the government employees.
Elected officials — Democrats and Republicans — were reluctant to weigh in, not wanting to appear critical of the president's wife. But the trip provided plenty of fodder for television news anchors, talk-show hosts and bloggers.
Critics portrayed the foreign getaway as tone-deaf to the deep economic anxiety back home. Earlier in the week, the first lady was photographed walking through the streets of the Costa del Sol region wearing a one-shouldered Jean Paul Gaultier top.
Every first family takes vacations. The criticism aimed at Michelle Obama is that she chose to visit a foreign country rather than remain in the U.S. and support its fragile economy.
Last month the first lady flew to the Florida Panhandle, a tourist draw hit hard by the oil spill crisis, and delivered the message that for parents "looking for things to do with their kids this summer … this is a wonderful place to visit."
The opulence of the European trip also has drawn scrutiny. The president has urged frugality in lean economic times. He once cautioned that families saving money for college shouldn't "blow a bunch of cash in Vegas."
Michelle Obama is staying at the Hotel Villa Padierna, a Ritz-Carlton resort in the mountains outside Marbella. The resort boasts two golf courses, a posh spa with Turkish baths, views of the Mediterranean Sea and a high-end restaurant specializing in avant-garde fare. Room rates start at $400 and rise to $6,500 for a two-bedroom villa with a private pool and 24-hour butler service.
The danger for the Obamas is that the trip may feed perceptions that they are elites, out of touch with struggling American families, said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster.
"This in and of itself doesn't hurt President Obama, but it plants a seed in voters' minds that she's not like me, that they're not like me," he said.
Though her friends arrived in Spain on their own, Michelle and Sasha Obama flew in on a type of aircraft that is also used by Vice President Joe Biden. It costs the government $11,555 an hour to operate the plane, according to the Air Force. Assuming a nearly eight-hour flight to nearby Malaga, the total round-trip cost of the flight is about $178,000.
The Obama family will reimburse the government an amount equal to two first-class tickets, Air Force officials said. A round-trip first-class flight to Malaga costs about $7,400, without discounts or restrictions.
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush, was not surprised that the trip has its critics.
"When you are a public figure, it can be difficult to lead a private life. Despite the fact that much of this trip is paid for personally, the American people know that there are costs borne by the taxpayers, and it's to be expected that the more expensive the trip, the greater the risk of criticism," McBride said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has declined to answer questions about the vacation, saying only that it is a "private trip."
Edwin Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, declined to say how many agents and aides are with the first lady in Spain.
A White House official said that Michelle Obama is accompanied by "a handful of longtime family friends — it's moms and daughters — and it's minimal staff." One aide on the trip is the first lady's deputy chief of staff, Melissa Winter.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the destination was chosen by Michelle Obama and her friends.
After the first lady returns home, she and her family will soon head out for another vacation. They will travel to the Gulf Coast for the weekend of Aug. 14, followed by a 10-day vacation on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
Other first ladies have faced an uproar over personal travel. In October 1963, two months after the death of a son born prematurely, Jacqueline Kennedy left her husband behind for a two-week Greek holiday, which featured sailing the Aegean aboard Aristotle Onassis' 303-foot yacht.
A House Republican from Ohio opened an attack, alleging that Onassis owed millions to the U.S. government and questioning the propriety of a trip on a yacht with a 60-man crew "including two coiffeurs and a dance band."
As Letitia Baldrige, Kennedy's chief of staff, recalled Friday in an interview: "People were rather bummed out when she went on that yacht. She got tremendous flak."
Kathleen Hennessey and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.