Still, even after Mrs. Obama's European vacation, some former Bushies are slow to criticize the first lady. "I defended her on her trip to Spain because the first wave of anger was about the cost of her friends' travel expenses, which wasn't the case," says former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino. "But then I realized -- and I was surprised by how strong it was from the left -- that people were mad about the appearance of it. And I don't think that's about her trip in particular. I think people seized on the trip to channel their more general anger and frustration with the administration's policies and approach."
Perino is probably more understanding than the public as a whole. In the coming campaign, Mrs. Obama's expensive tastes invite the charge that the Obama White House, with its fondness for Wagyu beef, glitzy parties and celebrity hobnobbing, is out of touch with regular people. That can hurt at a time when 66 percent of those surveyed in the new poll believe President Obama has fallen short of their expectations for dealing with the economy.
Where do Mrs. Obama's ratings go from here? The White House is certainly hoping that she won't end up in the territory last occupied by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who began her time in the White House with a 57 percent positive rating but quickly fell into the 40s after the Travelgate scandal and into the 30s with the Whitewater investigation.
The administration is also hoping that Mrs. Obama doesn't get an extended version of the treatment handed to first lady Nancy Reagan. There's no comparable polling from that era, but during the economic downturn of the early 1980s, Mrs. Reagan's image was hurt by relentless criticism in the press. The New York Times lashed out at her for "exercising her opulent tastes in an economy that is inflicting hardship on so many."
Back then, the pundits didn't hit Mrs. Reagan for the mere "appearance" of extravagance. So far, Mrs. Obama has mostly escaped that kind of searing criticism. But one more lavish outing, and no one will be talking about her as the White House's best asset.