It seemed like a harmless moment in Barack Obama's presidency—a night on the town for the first couple in New York.
But the episode Saturday night is taking on a life of its own in the media, and much of the reaction is turning critical.
The Today Show on NBC this morning noted that the timing and cost of the trip seemed awkward to some because of the recession and the fact that many American families are struggling. Correspondent Savannah Guthrie said, "The Obamas took a smaller Air Force One to the city for a date night. Press and staff followed in two smaller planes."
A White House official responded to Republican criticism that the trip was extravagant. "The president would have been happy to take the shuttle to New York City if they'd been permitted to do so," he said, indicating that the Secret Service insisted on government planes. The official said he couldn't immediately provide an estimate of the cost, but it seemed likely to run into tens of thousands of taxpayers' dollars.
Barack and Michelle Obama jetted to New York Saturday afternoon, rode a government helicopter into Manhattan, and had dinner at the critically acclaimed Blue Hill restaurant. Then they went north to Times Square—causing traffic blockages and drawing a heavy police presence—where they saw "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." After the show, the Obamas took a motorcade down Sixth Avenue, shut down by police. Thousands of onlookers waved and cheered as the couple headed home to the White House.
Obama issued this statement: "I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished."
The GOP pounced. As word got out of the president's plans Saturday, the Republican National Committee issued this statement: "As President Obama prepares to wing into Manhattan's theater district on Air Force One to take in a Broadway show, GM is preparing to file bankruptcy and families across America continue to struggle to pay their bills.... Have a great Saturday evening—even if you're not jetting off somewhere at taxpayer expense."
The RNC added: "If President Obama wants to go to the theater, isn't the presidential box at Kennedy Center [in Washington] good enough?"
For many years, presidents have used government transportation, and spent taxpayers' money, for personal trips. George W. Bush, for example, traveled frequently to his Texas ranch for vacations and R&R. Bill Clinton went to Martha's Vineyard for vacations in the summer. George H.W. Bush often traveled to his retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, for breaks from Washington.
The opposition party sometimes jumps on these trips and argues that the president is being extravagant or sending the wrong signal of self-indulgence to the country. That's what's happening to Obama now.